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Swing Through Sri Lanka

Duncan Forgan takes his rickety golf game to the island nation, home to characterful layouts steeped in colonial-era character.

Falling like a droplet off the face of India, Sri Lanka’s otherworldly beauty has moved many visitors to tears down the centuries.

Known to Arab traders as Serendib – fitting source material for the word serendipity – and British colonists as Ceylon, the island nation, with its tropical bounty of paradise beaches, jungle-clad mountains, and tumbling waterfalls, is as visually stunning as any on earth.

Like others before me, I am in thrall to the country’s jaw-dropping physical attributes. However, it is the reliably unkempt state of my golf game as much as the verdant mountain scenery at Nuwara Eliya that is currently threatening to bring on the waterworks.

Located at an altitude of 6,000 feet amidst the highest mountains in Sri Lanka, the course at Nuwara Eliya was built by a Scotsman way back in 1889 for the British servicemen and officials who used the town as a cool retreat from the sweltering lowlands in colonial times.

This particular Caledonian interloper, however, is singularly failing to do justice to his golf-obsessed forefathers. “You need to slow your swing down,” says my aging caddie who is showing signs of being mortally offended by my crash-bang-wallop approach to the game even by the second hole.

What is doubly galling is that the ‘spotter’, a second veteran caddie deployed to keep track of errant shots whom I deemed an unnecessary luxury at the outset of the round, is currently one of the busiest men in town.

The scattershot nature of my game is providing cause for consternation. At least, I console myself, I am stinking the place up in a thrillingly different golf destination.

On the face of it, Sri Lanka is not the most obvious place to bring your clubs. Currently, there are only four courses, Nuwara Eliya, Royal Colombo, Victoria Golf and Country Resort near Kandy, and the new Shangri La Hambantota Golf Club in the south.

Meanwhile, the hilly topography of the island may make for some eye-catching vistas but it also contributes to some fairly tortuous journey times. Nevertheless, the high standard of the four existing courses allied to the feeling that Sri Lanka’s time as a world-class tourist destination has arrived serves to make a compelling case for the country.

“Things are good here now,” confirms Sunil, my driver, the following day, as we make our way from Nuwara Eliya back down through a succession of venerable tea plantations towards the city of Kandy.

Showing remarkable cool as he guides the car around a switchback corner, narrowly missing a three-wheeler making its way ponderously in the opposite direction, he continues: “Things are more peaceful than they were when I was growing up.”

Looking around me at the cathedral of lush greenery in the mountains, it is not difficult to see why ordinary Sri Lankans like Sunil retain a degree of optimism.

Yet while the focus of its people is undoubtedly on the future, visitors don’t have to mine too vigorously to catch a glimpse of the country’s fascinating past.

That’s especially true of Nuwara Eliya, which revels in its ‘preserved-in-aspic’ colonial trappings.

The golf course, which meanders around the town center, is the most obvious manifestation of its time-warped persona. It is, however, far from a relic and holds its own as a modern test. There’s a quirkiness about it. The proximity to public life necessitates several road crossings and more than a little confusion with non-golf-savvy locals over ‘right of way’ privileges.

Despite these eccentricities, it presents many compelling challenges. The tall trees and thick foliage that crowd the fairways make accuracy paramount, especially on roller-coaster holes such as the par-4 14th and the sixth, an epic par-5 that finishes up on a green measuring close to 10,000 square feet.

Victoria Golf Club overlooking the stunning Victoria Reservoir

The whiff of nostalgia is even more strong at the nearby Hill Club. Founded even before the Golf Club in 1876, this former male-only bastion for gentlemen tea planters takes pride in its anachronism. While females are admitted these days, a strict dress code still applies. So I am resplendent in the requisite jacket and tie as I am seated underneath a stuffed boar’s head in the dining room for my evening meal.

The food, a resolutely old-school roast pork loin with roasted vegetables and thick gravy, isn’t wholly top-notch, but the clubby ambiance—check out the billiard room, the giant roaring hearth in the dining room, and threadbare red carpets direct from the 1920s —make this a fascinating place to lay your head for a couple of nights.

The next morning I begin the day the Sri Lankan way with a breakfast of curry mopped up with egg hoppers (bowl-shaped pancakes made with rice flour and coconut milk with a delicious runny egg deposited in the middle) before setting off back down the hill towards Kandy.

Although it is the country’s second-largest city, Kandy has the feel of an overgrown provincial town. Side roads transport you from busy street markets bustling with three-wheelers and women sporting colorful saris to peaceful temple complexes shaded by giant coconut palms.

Image by Victoria Golf Club

Spiritual attractions like the Temple of the Sacred Tooth—Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic—pull in the pilgrims. But I am here to worship at the city’s altar of golf, the Victoria Golf and Country Resort, which is situated around a 40-minute drive out of town.

Like the course at Nuwara Eliya, the Donald Steel-designed layout here isn’t without quirks. However, it is more otherworldly than eccentric in its spectacular beauty.

With the giant Victoria reservoir and the Knuckles mountain range providing the backdrop the setting is immaculate. And so are many of the holes. The pick of the bunch is the 6th played from an elevated tee more than 100 feet above the fairway. Other highlights are myriad, but for me, the pinnacle of the round was the par-5 15th. The sweeping grandeur of the hole, which sweeps along the perimeter of the reservoir was reason enough to salute its merits. The fact it yielded my only birdie in 54 holes of golf made it even more notable.

While it is never a chore to be out on the course at a venue as enjoyable as this, the view from the terrace 19th hole makes a post-round libation a must. Tomorrow I will head to Colombo for one final round at the excellent Royal Colombo. For now, I’m content to observe a box-office sunset while beads form rivulets on an ice-cold bottle of local Three Coins beer. This time, however, the tears are wholly welcome.