"What do you play now?"
"Nothing," Sikander said flatly. His melancholy took me by surprise; he had been full of smiles since we'd met two days before. But then he bent forward and pulled up his left pant leg. I cringed. A six-inch-long, two-inch deep section of the back of his leg, starting just above the ankle, was missing. It looked as if the flesh had been carved out. "I was shot by militants," he said. "The doctors had to remove the flesh to save my leg."
In 1999 Sikander was a passenger in a car belonging to a senior Indian government official. One minute he and some friends were casually driving along Dal Lake. The next minute machine-gun fire was ripping through the windows and doors. Sikander says militants were trying to assassinate the politician, but they didn't know that their target wasn't in the car. Sikander's friend, who was driving, died instantly. Sikander was lucky. "I survived," he said, "because I bent down while trying to roll out of the door, so most of the bullets flew over me."
Now, halfway up the mountain, Sikander and I stood in silence, looking down at the course and the small hotels on the valley floor. "I used to dream about getting into golf in my old age," Sikander said. "My brother plays. He has worked at some courses, and he was going to teach me. Now I can only wonder."
PGA Tour player Daniel Chopra was never exposed to violence during the seven summers he spent in Kashmir with his family in the 1980s. "It was paradise on earth," says the 31-year-old Chopra. "Kashmiris were the kindest people I've ever met. They will do anything to please you."
Chopra, whose mother is Swedish and father is Indian, moved from Sweden to Delhi when he was eight, living with his paternal grandparents for eight years. His grandparents had two summer houses in Kashmir--one in Srinagar and another 60 miles to the east in the remote town of Pahalgam, on the Lidder River, which is known for its trophy trout. Daniel's grandfather, Dev, was an avid golfer and a founding member of the Delhi Golf Club. The day he took Daniel to the Kashmir Golf Club and introduced him to the game, the boy was hooked. "I played every day up there," says Chopra, who won several Indian amateur tournaments as a teenager in Kashmir. "I owe my success in golf to what I learned in Kashmir."
The Chopras stopped summering in Kashmir in 1989, the year civil war erupted. "I go back to Delhi every year to see my family and sleep in my childhood bed, but getting to Kashmir has been out of the picture," says Chopra. "I hear the violence is slowing down, so maybe now I can return. It would be like going back to heaven."
Kashmir golf club, located in downtown Srinagar and surrounded by bustling six-lane roads, is an oasis amid urban chaos. I visited the flat, short nine-holer a few hours before catching a flight back to Delhi. I was hoping to play a few holes and meet Ghulam Mohammad, the club's honorary pro. Several Kashmiri golfers had mentioned Mohammad, who was said to be 100 years old. I was told that 75 years ago he became the first Indian golf professional and went on to have a successful career as a player and teaching pro in India.
After being dropped off in the parking lot, Sikander and I walked past an army barracks--I looked in the front door and saw soldiers sprawled on couches watching TV--and then around the clubhouse to the 1st tee. The sun was shining and birds were chirping, but there wasn't a soul to be seen. In the men's locker room I found an attendant.
"Sir, the course is closed," he said, explaining that an computerized sprinkler system had recently been installed and the fairway grass hadn't grown back yet. And Mohammad? "He is dead since a few years," the attendant said.