Himalayan Golf Course, Nepal
Some golf courses (e.g., Sand Hills) seem to be an effortless creation over a special piece of property, while others rely on superlative design to make the golfer feel as though he is playing over an especially good site. At Friar’s Head, for example, Coore and Crenshaw’s masterful routing and attention to detail to tie the disparate parts of the property together cause the golfer to leave the 18th green believing that the property was predestined for golf, when in fact it took great effort and imagination to achieve that perception.
Himalayan Golf Course, outside Pokhara, Nepal, falls in the latter category, as the golfer believes he is playing on one of the handful of truly mind-blowing pieces of property that any course on the planet occupies. The golfer is correct in this belief, but this was not a site that begged for a golf course. Rather, it took immense imagination and creativity to envision, design and build the course, and then to continue to refine it. To top it off, the design and construction work was done by amateurs with no experience in the industry!
This course owes its dramatic experiences to Major Ram Gurung, a Gurkha who served in the British Army for 30 years before retiring to Pokhara in 1994 to design and build the course. Major Gurung is one of a handful of Gurkhas ever to graduate from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England and was the first Nepali to take up golf in the British Gurkhas. He reached the level of an 8 handicap and was Secretary of the Brigade of Gurkhas Golfing Society while stationed in Hong Kong.
Just before retiring, Major Gurung had been asked to consult on a new resort outside Pokhara. The resort would occupy only 30 acres, and he advised the owners that a pitch-and-putt course could be built, but nothing more, given the limited acreage. The original partners were disappointed at the news but went ahead and invited him to visit the site. While the owners had in mind a flat site on the rim of a canyon, Major Gurung relates his first impression:
When I came to visit the resort site and quite literally stumbled onto this raw, unadulterated canyon land below with a Himalayan river running through it, my immediate response was “Now here’s a possibility of squeezing in a championship nine hole course. Can you acquire the land?” The land was subsequently acquired.
Architect Ron Fream, an American who has visited Nepal at least 20 times and offered pro bono counsel at both Himalayan Golf Course and Yeti’s Golf Course at the Fulbari Resort (also near Pokhara), goes so far as to write that Major Gurung ‘conceived a golf course where no other could have’ and describes the golfer’s perspective: ‘You have begun marveling in the vertigo, disorientation of descending hole by hole into the bottom of the gorge. Now the sheer walls tower above on both sides.’
Major Gurung became so enamored with the possibility of creating a special course that he became a partner in the project, designed the course and oversaw its construction. Given his golfing background and keen interest in gardening and landscaping, he was a logical choice for the project, given the dearth of professional architects and builders within 1000 miles.
How, then, did he approach the design? He responds, ‘My main theme when laying out the course was simply to flow with nature and where possible bring into a play a golfer’s senses to the limit by the sound and sight of rivers and canyon edges.’
Not surprisingly, he cites for inspiration two of the most dramatic, yet also strategic, holes in golf: The 16th at Cypress Point and the 17th at the Old Course at St. Andrews. His reference to the sound of the Bijayapur River that runs through the canyon is not an overstatement – one can actually hear the fierce river that carries off snowmelt from the Annapurna range from several hundred feet above on the rim of the canyon. A dominant, natural sound makes for a wonderful addition to any course, as devotees of seaside golf can attest. Yet, let it be said that the golfer needs to take care when crossing the rushing river in a few spots, just as he would on a Himalayan trek.
The plan was to build nine holes and then look to expand, with the hope of having 18 holes one day. The original nine, which took “four years of pure hand labour to complete,” consisted of the current holes 1-3; a longer version of the current 5th hole; the current 6th and 10th holes; the current 13th hole from a tee across the river (from near the current 10th green); and the current 14th and 15th holes. While it would be tempting to stop with such a nine that rivals any nine-holer in the world, Major Gurung and his partners wanted to press on with more holes, in part because there were more great holes to be built and in part to allow the course to be considered more of a destination (as, rightly or wrongly, golfers are more willing to go out of their way to play an 18-hole course than a 9-hole course).
Major Gurung cleverly inserted the one-shot fourth hole, relocated the tee for the old 4th/new 5th hole, added holes 7-9, 11 – 12 and 16 on previously unused property. Holes 1 and 2 had a second hole cut on each green, so that players would play those holes again to achieve 18. While these additions to reach 18 holes sound forced on paper, in execution the design comes off seamlessly. (Even though there is a healthy hike up out of the canyon from the 15th green to the 16th tee, the golfer knows he must climb out of the canyon at some point (as he used to do at the conclusion of his round) and does not mind, as the 16th tee is arguably the most dramatic in all golf.) As Major Gurung describes the expansion, “We managed to upgrade without disjointing the overall layout.”
This expansion from 9 to 16 holes is especially notable for the fact that the original nine holes were laid out without the assurance that more property would be available to allow for more holes. Therefore, the original nine was designed to be the best nine that it could be, and the subsequent holes had to be fitted around them. The fact that most visitors would not know that the course was not laid out at the same time is a testament to Major Guring’s work.
The property originally intended for part of the back nine had been developed, hence the current 16 holes. However, while some courses refuse to conform to the standards of 9 or 18 holes (e.g., Shiskine’s 12 holes), it remains a reasonable goal for Himalayan Golf Course to have a full 18, and there is room on the existing property to do so (e.g., perhaps a new hole between 11 and 12 or between the 15th green and the walk up to the 16th tee). It is commendable that, while there was a long-range plan from the start, the owners have showed the patience to ensure that the course matures nicely and to see how the changes play out before further steps are taken.
While some modern courses seem to bombard the senses with one “signature hole” after another, Himalayan Golf Course, while intentionally dramatic, succeeds in pacing out the musical highs: the view from the 3rd tee as the golfer first plays down into the canyon; the island 6th green; the 7th tee shot across the river; the first view of the 10th green after climbing up from the fairway; the 13th green, fitted between an outcropping on the right and the river on the left (with the abrupt canyon wall just beyond the river); the view of the 15th green after climbing to the high point in the fairway some 75 yards short of the green; and the 16th tee, literally perched on the edge of the canyon. As is often the case with truly great courses, the player often thinks “Surely this high standard of golf cannot continue,” only to be thrilled when it does. To the author, the aforementioned high points allow the course to do exactly that.
One fascinating aspect of the design is how several features (e.g., the unexpected tumble down the hill to the blind 15th green) would fit well at, say, Cruden Bay. To come across such traditional, fun elements of Scottish links golf in a river canyon in Nepal is surreal. Fream describes the course as “rough, rugged golf as I imagine golf in Scotland around 1850. Unconventional as can be, an example of organic golf.”
Holes to Note
3rd hole, 345 yards: Following the admittedly less than thrilling opening two holes over flat ground, the golfer’s breath is taken away on this severely downhill tee shot that takes him down into the canyon and has him headed directly towards the towering Annapurna massif of the Himalayas in the distance. After descending to the upper part of the canyon floor (yes, over the next few holes he will continue down even further until he reaches the raging river itself), the golfer is confronted with a pitch to a two-level green that steps down from left to right. The clever green ensures that there is plenty of golf needed on this hole – it is much more than just a postcard view.
4th hole, 200 yards: One of the most precise shots on the course, the tee shot on the fourth needs to find the small (3000 square feet) green that is benched into the hillside. A ledge on the right (high) side makes it difficult to bounce the ball in from that side, while the left features a sharp drop-off from where golfers are happy to make 4. To top it off, the right side of the green has a good-sized knob in it. Quite a hole for one that was added after the original nine holes was being played.
6th hole, 555 yards: Originally the fifth hole, this three-shotter immediately established itself as one of the unique holes in the world of golf. After a strategic diagonal tee shot across the river (which he wants to hug as much as possible to shorten the distance to the green and leave the best angle into the green), the golfer has a stark decision to make: To go for the green (on an island in the river) or lay up to the right. Whether with the second or third shot, the approach is invigorating, as the golfer has real concerns with coming up short or, especially with the firm conditions, rolling over the green and into the river just beyond. The one architectural quibble the author has with the course is the addition of the eight circular bunkers short of the green, as the extraneous clutter of these manmade features appear woefully out of place in this setting and so dominate the approach that a golfer would not realistically try to fit a shot between them.
7th hole, 150 yards: Just as the player feels his head spinning after the drama of the previous four holes, he thinks “The course can’t keep this up; surely some pedestrian holes are in store.” The player climbs to the 7th tee and is emphatically proven wrong, with a one-shotter across the river to a parapet green. To the author, this is a key point in the round as the golfer now starts to believe that this course is more than just a novelty with a few good holes and pretty views.
8th hole, 340 yards: While the 8th and 9th holes share a fairway, they do not share landing areas, so the pair work well together. The 8th provides the only blind tee shot on the course and demands a precise pitch to a tight green built against the base of the wooded canyon wall.
9th hole, 350 yards: Requiring only a middle iron and a pitch, the 9th is a beautifully framed hole, with the trees on the left and the hillside on the right. The green is set into a rocky hillside and requires that the ball be pitched onto it.
10th hole, 535 yards: Sharing the fairway for the tee shot with the 6th hole, the 10th then presents a demanding, uphill, blind second. Once he reaches the upper fairway, the golfer is relieved to find much more room than he expected and, in the distance, a large, tilted green. After climbing the hill, the golfer feels as though he has been transported from Nepal to Scotland, as the last 75 yards of this hole would be right at home at, say, The Machrie.
Himalayan Golf Course, Nepal
11th hole, 170 yards: At first this one-shotter seems innocuous, but a closer study reveals that its simple minimalist design would make architects such as Tom Doak proud. With the strong left-to-right pitch of the ground and a drop-off to the right, the architects showed admirable restraint and merely located the green between the two. The golfer cannot afford to miss the green to the right, but there is plenty of room for a well-played shot to find its way onto the green, whether via the direct or indirect (bounced in from the left) route.
12th hole, 360 yards: While the river is on the left, the smart as well as conservative play is to the right, as a pitch from the right side of the fairway leaves the golfer a view of the green, while a tee shot down the middle or left leaves a blind approach over the bridge spanning the river. While just a pitch, the approach becomes more intimidating with each round, as the player realizes how difficult it is to hold the small, firm green guarded tightly on the left by a burn and on the right and behind by some of the few bunkers on the course. Much like Royal Ashdown Forest, bunkers often are not needed at Himalayan Golf Course as the landscape provides plenty of challenge.
13th hole, 460 yards: This big hole has much to offer: strategy off the tee (if a player hugs the river on the left, he is rewarded with an open approach to the green; if he cautiously plays to the right, he has a blind approach and awkward angle). To top it off, this must be one of the most magically sited greens in golf. Every bit the equal of the dramatic 6th, at least to this author.
15th hole, 515 yards: A topsy-turvy hole in the finest links tradition, the 15th bends left before climbing up and over a hill that, for 75 yards, tumbles down to a green. The thrilling view from the top of the hill, with the welcoming green below and the magnificent 6th beyond as well as, on a clear day, the Annapurnas, reinforces the notion that somehow this spectacular course keeps one-upping itself as the round progresses.
16th hole, 165 yards: The small tee on the very edge of the canyon, reminds the golfer of one of Loyal Chapman’s “Infamous 18” fantasy golf holes. The tee shot must carry the sheer drop of at least 200 feet to a green that is, for practical purposes, set away from the edge of the canyon. The green itself is one of the rare push-up greens of the course, ensuring challenging recovering shots from around it.
So far this profile has barely mentioned the spectacular (an inadequate adjective) views that the course enjoys for part of the year (especially during the late fall and winter, when the course remains open). On a clear day, the Annapurna massif provides a backdrop like no other in the world of golf, with three (!!) of the world’s fourteen 8000 meter peaks visible. The reasons for this omission are that (1) mountains were not visible during the author’s April 2014 visit and (2) the backdrop is merely icing on the cake and not essential to the course’s greatness. Even on a hazy day, the course leaves the golfer marveling at its design and canyon setting; on a clear day, the golfer is in danger of sensory overload, so strong is the experience. Fream sums up this sentiment by saying that “’Golf with a view’ would be an understatement.”
This course profile would not be complete without reference to the course conditioning. Not surprisingly, the course is on a tight budget for maintenance. For example, the holes on the putting greens are moved perhaps once each month. Ron Fream notes “Hand built greens have gone from sand to a form of Tifdwarf Bermuda grass. Paspalum was delivered on one visit to see how that grass could compete on fairways with the local cow grass and animal grazing. Maintenance remains basic. Local women hand pull weeds and rake bunkers. The greens are mowed by a power mower these days, but two men must carry the mower from hole to hole on their shoulders. Fairway grasses are as rainfall directs and animal grazing progresses.”
Most holes in the canyon have fences around the greens, to keep off the sheep, cattle and buffalo (who also are responsible for much of the course maintenance). The altitude of Pokhara is nearly 2500 feet above sea level and has a sub tropical climate. Combined with the little rainfall that the area sees, the result is an intriguingly firm course (e.g., the pitch across the river to the small, tightly defended 12th green is most demanding). Ultimately the course plans to convert its fairways to Zoysia to provide better turf and allow golfers more reasonably to play the ball as it lies.
How, then to sum up Himalayan Golf Course? Let Tom Doak have the final word: