The island nation of Sri Lanka, a former British colony renowned for producing fine tea, serves up a refreshingly different golf holiday for anyone willing to take an exotic and unconventional road trip…
- Capital Course – Royal Colombo Golf Club
- Tee-times in Tea Country: Nuwara Eliya
- Caddies that call you “Master”
- Cobras in the rough
- Pond Boys and curried eggs at the halfway hut
Leaving Bandaranaike International Airport in an ageing chaffeur driven Toyota, passing the remnants of militarized checkpoints – a legacy of a bitter drawn out civil war – I join Colombo’s rush hour traffic for the start of a week long tour of golf courses on the South Asian island of Sri Lanka.
The former British colony of Ceylon secured independence in 1948 but the footprint of colonialism is ever present and unmistakable. The British left behind roads, railways, tea plantations, colonial architecture and most intriguingly golf courses in modern day Sri Lanka. The blaring horns of Tuk Tuk’s punctuate the hot afternoon air as drivers jostle for position across fast changing lanes.
Less than an hour after landing in Sri Lanka and I already know this is going to be a golf trip full of bad driving.
European and North American holiday tourists have always loved Sri Lanka’s year round sunshine and white sand beaches. More people are slowly waking up to the idea that you can combine some great golf with time spent soaking up sun and swimming in tranquil blue waters.
Must-play golf courses in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a country of 20 million people, most of whom love cricket. Golf is growing in popularity in the nation named ‘venerable island’ in Sanskrit and there are four courses that should be top of your must-play list.
To play them, you’ll need to spend a lot of time travelling, because unlike Portugal’s Algarve, Scotland’s East Lothian or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina – this is a multi-region golf break that involves road tripping Sri Lanka, from coast to capital and high into tea country.
Sri Lanka’s must-play courses are situated in Colombo, the Island’s capital, Nuwara Eliya, the British colonial city in cool mountainous tea-country; Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city – and lastly on the far tip of its South Eastern coast.
All UK air traffic flies into Colombo, so it’s best to start your golf break here. Sprawling Colombo is Sri Lanka’s political, economic and judicial capital and while it’s no longer the ‘Garden city of the East,’ it’s a fascinating visitor destination in its own right and the perfect place to begin your golf holiday in Sri Lanka.
Royal Colombo Golf Club
Royal Colombo Golf Club is a monument to Sri Lanka’s colonial past. It was founded in 1879, celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2004 and is one of the most historic golf courses in Asia. It’s where you’ll find consulate officials sipping Gin and Tonic under shade or CEO’s striking deals over lunch on the verandah.
Reaching this course through the chaos of Sri Lankan traffic is not the ideal settler for the first tee.
Lane discipline and road markings are non-existent and overtaking at the beep of a horn happens anywhere, even on sharp blind bends. After winding through tuk tuk’s (three-wheeled taxis), Leyland buses and the occasional Morris Minor, I was surprised to find this prestigious affluent club situated among inner-city slums where poverty is rife.
Locals often dry their washing on the club’s outer fence, but once inside the gate it’s a world of privilege and luxury.
Caddies that call you Master
A caddie is compulsory and costs 275 rupees (£1.50), and will probably call you “Master,” a throwback from the colonial era.
Royal Colombo is flat and open but an excellent test of golf distinguished by the Kelani Valley Railway line running smack bang across the front of the 6th green.
Be sure to interrupt your pre-shot routine and start over when an overcrowded rusting locomotive homes into view with people hanging out of windows and doors.
There are numerous water hazards to negotiate at Royal Colombo – it’s possible to find one on nearly every hole – but there’s no danger of running out of balls.
Pond Boys at Royal Colombo Golf Club
The club employs young men from the surrounding slums as “pond boys,” to fish out your ball and return it, at a cost of 20 rupees (8 pence.) There are excellent mid-length short holes and challenging par-fives, but the green at the 404-yard par-four 8th fronts the verandah of the clubhouse and offers the best opportunity to refuel.
Be served drinks, boiled eggs and curried meat pastries from a silver tray at the halfway house and still get change from a pound. Always take a change of clothes when playing golf in Sri Lanka.
The humid temperatures and propensity for short bursts of rain can leave you looking like someone who’s attempted to practice his putting in a sauna. Within three hours drive, but only a distance of 150kms, is the mountain Kingdom of Kandy – the last place to fall to the British in 1815.
Sri Lanka’s traffic infra-structure is notoriously bad, and the roads are pockmarked and patchy at best. Even main roads run through populated centres, alongside coconut, crafts and fruit stalls, so getting anywhere takes time.
Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage
The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, on the Colombo-Kandy road, is a great place to break up the journey. It houses and rehabilitates injured elephants or those orphaned by ivory poachers.
Victoria Golf and Country Club at Digana is 45 minutes drive from Kandy, a snippet in Sri Lankan terms.
The course is a Donald Steel design and is ranked amongst the 100 most beautiful courses in the world by Golf Digest. Carved from the palm and coconut trees of the grand Mara and Jak forests and overlooking the Victorian reservoir basin, it’s a breathtaking setting.
The finest holes are on the front nine, which winds up into the hills above the valley floor and back-nine.
The 6th is the best visual spectacle on the course, and while of questionable design, is perhaps Sri Lanka’s toughest par-four.
The drive from an elevated tee affords views over the valley floor and mountainous ring encircling it, to a tight tree-lined fairway, snaking left and right around forest thickets to a raised green.
Victoria has incredibly subtle greens, sloping more ways than the approaches to Mount Everest, but it is very playable after one or two rounds.
Straight driving is essential, and venturing into thick rough ill advised – King Cobra’s have to make home too – although sightings are rare.
The club secretary told Global Golfer they’re more likely to run scared than attack a golfer armed with a rescue club.
While Royal Colombo has pedigree and Victoria a magnificent setting, Nuwara Eliya golf club is the golfing experience you won’t forget.
Situated at the base of Mount Pidurutalagala in the heart of tea country, nearly 2000 metres above sea level, the course was laid out by the British Army’s Gordon Highlanders — when Nuwara Eliya was the seat of colonial government in the former British colony.
At just 6250 yards long, the course is short but the fairways are some of the narrowest you’ll encounter and bordered by fir trees and thick bushes.
Nuwara Eliya bristles with charm. From its practice ground – a strip of grass in front of the clubhouse, behind the 18th green, from where you can fire “Woods only” down the 18th fairway – to its cricket pavilion style Clubhouse.
Tea and toast on the verandah harks back to the British era that founded the club and outwardly little has changed in style and substance. To your caddie, you are “Master,” and the clubhouse feels like a well-preserved 19th century British golf club.
Nuwara Eliya is where you will see the hard back breaking work of picking tea leaves in the vast estates that serve many of the island’s most productive tea factories. Tea production involves a lengthy process of plucking, withering, rolling, oxidizing and drying leaves but it starts with hardy people in the fields and on the hillsides.
Shangri-La’s Hambantota Golf Resort
The newest golf course in Sri Lanka opened in 2017 at the Shangri-La Hambantota resort in Ambalantota on the island’s South East coast.
Designed by American Rodney Wright, every hole on this 18 hole layout has been named to represent the area’s local heritage and identity including sapphire mines, snakes, extreme weather, elephants and monkeys.
The course borders the Indian Ocean and is laid out over a former coconut plantation. There are lots of water hazards making it a challenging and exhilarating test of golf.
The resort is also located along the ancient Spice Route which also means there’s plenty of history and sightseeing to enjoy between rounds.
For the golf traveller, Sri Lanka offers unforgettable experiences and real character that sets it apart from the excellent but predictable golf break in Spain or Portugal.
On the downside, it’s a logistically complex trip – with 11 hours of flying – and transfers between the three courses lasting up to four hours.
With the pound going further than you could imagine, combining golf with Sri Lanka’s other rich cultural delights could be just your cup of tea.
WHERE TO PLAY
Royal Colombo Golf Club
Victoria Golf and Country Resort
Nuwara Eliya GC
Tel: +94 522 222 835
Shangri-La Hambantota resort
WHERE TO STAY
Luxurious five-star hotel situated in Echelon square, in the heart of Colombo’s business and shopping district.
Amaya Hills is a luxury hilltop hotel in the forested hills of Heerassagala with spectacular views.
The Grand Hotel
The former summer residence of the British governor of Sri Lanka turned palatial Colonial hotel in tea country.
The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage
Temp: 25 to 28 dgs in hill country
Nuwara Eliya is cooler at 12 to 16dgs
Sri Lankan Rupee (Rs)