Sumathi Raghunathan on women bonding over golf, playing the sport clad in saris, and being coached by friendly caddies
In the 1970s, a chirpy group of women golfers played regularly at the Cosmopolitan Club and Gymkhana golf courses. We played the game for sheer fun. Whenever the men had a dispute, someone was sure to pipe up: ‘Can't we play in as dignified a manner as those ladies?' When this exhortative sentence was uttered, the warring men would end the dispute abruptly.
In Premier Padminis and Ambassadors, the ladies — numbering about a dozen — arrived together. With some of them turning out in decorously adorned saris, they could have been mistaken for women on a picnic.
Vanjulam Chari, Mrs. Ramaswamy and I were dubbed ‘the sari-clad golfers of Madras'. A travel agent once clandestinely snapped a photo of me swinging the club at Guindy — as the Gymkhana Golf Club is known — and sidled up to me with an infuriating request. ‘Madam, can we use this photo in a tourist brochure that discusses places to visit in Madras? A woman golfer in a sari will be a charming novelty to a foreign tourist,' he said, visibly pleased with the idea. I yelled at him till I went blue in the face. Shaken up, he handed over the negative without a protest and slunk away.
That was the only time I behaved in an unladylike fashion on a golf course. Other than this, there was no reason to be upset with anyone. The caddies were friendly and helped deal with problems unique to a golf course.
To give an example, a flock of rogue crows assumed ownership of the second hole on the Cosmopolitan Golf Course. Immediately after a ball was putted, one of them would swoop down, fork out the ball and try to fly away with the booty. A caddie would chase the thieving crow, and terrify it into dropping the ball. Call it coincidence or what you will, the second hole at the Kodiakanal golf course — where I played during the summer — was targeted by foxes. A fox would nuzzle into the fissure, pluck out the ball and make away with it.
Tall grasses teeming with snakes and rabbits characterised the rough at Guindy. But for the caddies, nobody ventured into them to retrieve a ball. The caddies offered free coaching tips. With scant regard for the syntax and subtleties of English, they would tell us how to play the game. This invariably led to uproarious laughter. Once, a caddie at Guindy told Devi Palaniswami, ‘Throw your hands!' (A literal English translation of the Tamil phrase ‘kaiya vittu adinga' which actually means ‘loosen your hands and hit freely'. Devi could not resist quipping: ‘If I throw my hands, how will I drive all my friends back home?'
Jokes were an inseparable element of women's golf. Jayashree Bharath — an architect — was a past master at stand-up comedy, and would regale us with funny anecdotes after a session of golf. But, much of the humour on the golf courses of Madras was to be seen rather than heard. For instance, a lady golfer played wearing a high head-dress, which made her look like an ancient potentate.
Preferring to carry around an umbrella, instead of wearing a hat, I probably cut a funny figure. Except for me, all women wore hats. I never wore gloves either. This was due to my fascination for what I call Wheeler's Maxim of Variables. Wheeler — a brilliant golf coach at Guindy — asked his players to cut down on the variables. He advised them against a slavish devotion to traditional stances, styles. After getting the basics right, the player had to let his natural game take over. After noticing my friends playing badly because they left a pair of gloves behind, I decided to cut out that accessory.
BIO SUMATHI RAGHUNATHAN: Born in 1935, she played golf in the 1970s and 1980s with distinction, winning The Addicts — an all-India tournament — one year and finishing runner-up in another. In addition, she has won many club-level golf tournaments.
I REMEMBER Balu Alaganan combined talent, humility and fair play. According to the rule book, a golfer can carry only 14 clubs in his bag. Due to oversight, he once carried 15 at a Cosmopolitan Club game; when he noticed it, he informed the authorities and insisted on being disqualified.