"Am I the only player today?"
"Sir, you are the only guest for many weeks."
In the short time it took Altaf to lead me past the putting green and the pro shop (an empty shack) to the 1st tee, four men had gathered to watch me play. Altaf told me they were part of the club's maintenance crew, but one of them was A.K. Wani, Gulmarg's spritely 50-year-old general manager.
Gulmarg resembles a rough-hewn British links, with the same gently rolling fairways and the same blend of thick grasses on the greens, which were dormant when I visited. For a half century, beginning in the late 1800s, British families from throughout India flocked to Gulmarg in the summer, and golf was their favorite pastime. By 1921 Gulmarg had 45 holes and one church, St. Mary's, which still stands between the 17th green and the 18th tee.
As I stood on the 1st tee, the course looked like one giant fairway, so I turned to my gallery and asked, "Where's the 1st green?"
"Out there," said Wani, pointing straight ahead. I still couldn't see a green, so I blasted a driver at the horizon. When I turned around, Wani was smiling, so I figured my ball was in a good spot.
At first glance Gulmarg might've looked like a sprawling pasture, but once I learned the lay of the tees and the elevated greens, which are surrounded by barbed wire to keep out cows and other grazing animals, I was mesmerized by the challenging doglegs protected by grass bunkers. Credit goes to Peter Thomson, the Australian architect and five-time British Open champion who remodeled Gulmarg in the late 1970s. The best hole is the 17th, a 190-yard par-3 and one of the hardest holes I've ever played. The tee is elevated, and you hit over a swale to a small, elevated green that has a vertical wall of grass and rock to the left and a 50-foot vertical drop to the right. I was lucky to pure a two-iron that landed just short of the green, bounced through the barbed wire and stopped six feet from the cup.
But the most interesting hole is the 9th. As I walked off that green, a ski lift running halfway up the snowy mountainside came into view. Wani explained that Gulmarg is India's only ski center and has four trails, one of which runs through a small village of yak herders. Some visitors even heli-ski at Gulmarg, venturing into vast high-altitude valleys and glaciers that are covered in deep powder from October through April. Wani said that a second lift was under construction. "Someday we will be like a resort in the Alps," he said.
The lift is open year-round, so after a delightful round I was joined by Sikander for a ride. "Do you play golf?" I asked him, as our gondola slowly climbed the hill.
Sikander's smile faded. "I was a big sportsman," he said. "Cricket, football, [field] hockey, skiing. I did so much."