Shah joined me for a round on the sporty 7,048-yard par-72 track, which is full of doglegs, multitiered greens, strategically positioned bunkers and sloping fairways. The signature hole is the 5th, a downhill par-3 of 201 yards with a dazzling view of Dal Lake. Shah regaled me with tales of the course's uniquely Kashmiri hazards. "Yesterday somebody was raking a bunker, looked up and was staring into the eyes of a Himalayan black bear," he said. "He wet his pants running to the clubhouse."
No expense was spared at state-owned Royal Springs, which has Kentucky bluegrass fairways, bentgrass greens and a computerized sprinkler system. Building a 21st-century course in Kashmir was not without its challenges. Everything from earth movers to ball washers had to be imported from the U.S. or Europe, traveling by ship to Bombay, by train to Jammu (a city 80 miles south of Srinagar) and then by truck to Royal Springs.
Construction on the course began in the early '90s, but because of the Pakistan- India conflict and the Kashmiri civil war, Royal Springs did not open until 2001. "It was common to hear [gunshots] flying around the perimeter of the course," says Michael Kahler, an American who works with Jones and was the construction manager at Royal Springs. "We were told not to worry because they were from a nearby military training base, but we never knew for sure."
Royal Springs was also a political lightning rod. Kashmir prime minister Dr. Farooq Abdullah--a.k.a. the Disco Prime Minister because of his partying and golfing in Delhi and London--conceived the multimillion-dollar project as a way to boost tourism, but opponents felt the money would have been better spent on the region's almost nonexistent infrastructure. In a country where the average annual income is the equivalent of about $300, they argued, electricity and running water were more important than a golf course.
"Kashmiris can't afford golf," says Glen Funada, who helped Kahler manage the construction, "so I always wondered, Why is Abdullah breaking the bank for the course, and who the heck is going to play here?"
Shah said Royal Springs has 130 members, most of whom are businessmen and politicians in Srinagar. Last year the club logged 7,500 rounds, only 1,000 of them by guests. One of the most avid golfers among the members is M.A. Shah, the deputy inspector general of the Kashmiri police. When Ghalib Shah and I caught up to M.A. on the 15th tee, he invited us to join him. When I told him that his routine of standing behind the ball and pointing his club at the target before each shot reminded me of Bob Tway, he deadpanned, "But I swing like Tiger!"
As the three of us walked around the pond fronting the 18th green, the jagged mountains were reflected in the still water. "Shouldn't you be working?" I asked M.A.
He draped a big right arm over my shoulders and laughed. "I am working," he said. "I have my mobile phone and command best from the course."
Ali Boktoo, 54, is a short, plump 12-handicapper who desperately wants a golf lesson. "But I'll never find one because we have no coaches in Kashmir," he said. Wearing a thick, gray wool wrap, he is sitting cross-legged on one of the two sheepskin rugs that cover the living-room floor of his houseboat. He leans forward and ladles a generous portion of hak (spinach sauteed with onions and garlic) onto the steaming white rice on my plate. We had met earlier that day at Royal Springs, and he invited me to a small dinner party on his boat.
Boktoo's houseboat is on Nigeen Lake, which is connected to Dal Lake by a canal and is three miles from downtown Srinagar. Like the rest of Srinagar's 1,500 houseboats, Boktoo's is rickety, musty and permanently docked. It is 124 feet long, 20 feet wide, made of wood and one story tall. The walls inside are covered by handmade Kashmir carpets. The exterior is painted tan and is highlighted by intricate hand-carved designs. Boats such as Boktoo's were built a century ago by the British, who lived on the lakes because Kashmiri law prohibited them from owning land. After Partition, Kashmiris bought the houseboats and turned most of them into hotels, which became one of Kashmir's chief attractions. (When Boktoo has no guests, which is often, he lives on the boat with his family.)