Not many may associate the south Indian city of Chennai with golf, a leisure sport played mostly by the affluent. The existence of an exclusive women’s golfing club that was formed in the ‘60s, when the city was still Madras, might sound even more surprising.
Chennai-based architect Jayashree Bharath, who spoke at the Madras Literary Society’s (MLS) Women in Sports in Madras lecture series on Saturday, shared quite a few anecdotes from her golfing days in the city. Organised as part of the Madras Day celebrations, MLS will curate more talks as part of this series.
Jayashree began playing golf in the early ‘80s when she was almost in her 40s. Confessing that the sport seemed like an ‘old people’s sport’ to her in beginning, Jayashree thanks Padma Devi (her classmate’s mother), considered one of the pioneers of the sport in the sixties, for persuading her to pick up the club.
“In three months, I was bitten, I was addicted,” she tells the small crowd seated amidst towering shelves of books inside MLS late in the morning on a quiet Saturday. “My husband then tried it and took to it eagerly as well.”
Jayashree points out that the early women pioneers of the game in the city did a lot to keep the sport going. While Padma Devi remained the captain for 7 years, Prema Srinivasan, pianist Anil Srinivasan’s mother, Lily Ratnam of the TVS family, Lalitha Balasubramaniam from the AVM family and Padmini Raghavan were some of the regulars who were enthused by the sport.
The women organised weekly tournaments but these came with challenges. “The tournaments were fixed for Wednesday afternoons, as the men would be at work then. Of course, it never occurred to most people in those days that women could also be at work – I was always a working woman and so for women like me this was an extra effort. Saturdays and Sundays were not convenient since the men would be at home and they expected to be attended to by the women,” Jayashree says.
Apart from golf being an expensive sport, Jayashree adds that equipment itself was quite difficult to buy in those days, allowing only the upper class and affluent to pursue it in the first place. During its early, dark days, ‘fore-caddies’, 10 to 12-year-old children, were employed to spot the ball. This practice was later dropped, Jayashree adds.
Then and now
The city has two prominent courses owned by clubs – the Cosmopolitan course, which is next to the YMCA in Nandanam, and the Gymkhana course, located right in the middle of the race course in Guindy. The restrictions imposed by the race course to not plant any trees on the Guindy golf course has made playing here quite challenging. “Sometimes the wind is so strong that while addressing the ball for putting, it pushes you off balance,” says Jayashree.
Zonal tournaments were conducted throughout the year by the Indian Golfing Union, Ladies section, Calcutta in each of the four centres – North, South, West, East. Madras conducted zonal tournaments for the south from 1978 to 2002 after which the south zonals were moved to Bengaluru. In her speech, Jayashree also talked about the unsuccessful formation of the South India Ladies Golf Association, the eventual winding up of Golfing Union for Ladies and consequentially the end of zonal tournaments. “Today, clubs in various cities hold their own tournaments and invite other clubs to participate,” she adds.
The active Golfing Addicts Society of India – South chapter is among the few clubs that encourage its members to participate in national and international tournaments. The other prominent tournaments in the country today include the Mahindra Cup for Women and the Queen Sirikit Cup.
Jayashree shared interesting anecdotes from some of the memorable matches she’s been a part of. When she won the 1986 India Ladies Golf Competition that was held in Delhi, she was quite surprised to be called ‘Jayashree Bharath of Coimbatore’. “I guess south Indian cities are often indistinguishable to people there,” she quips.
At the 1994 annual tournament between Madras Gymkhana Club and the Royal Colombo Club, Jayashree was quite amused to be playing for the men’s team. “One player could not make it at the last minute and being the only other golfer on that trip, I was pressed into playing for the men’s team,” she chuckles.
From watching women golfers tuck in their pallus and take a swing to observing the waning interest in the sport among today’s women, Jayashree urges more youngsters to take up the sport.
For Jayashree, golf is a test of character. “I liked it because one had to play against oneself. The character and honesty of a person can be judged in a game of golf,” she says. Calling it a stress reliever, she ends her talk by saying she hopes more women will take up the sport to keep it alive in the city.