Is golf an authorised military activity?

Tuesday, 31 January 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Are the Indian Army’s golf courses illegal?                
  • Sri Lanka’s fourth golf course opened by Air Force


India’s national auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), has reported to Parliament that the country’s Army has turned large tracts of State military property into illegal privately-run golf courses and leisure centres without paying rent to the Government of India, costing the exchequer billions of rupees in lost revenue.

The CAG reported that a privately-held company owned by Army officials ran nearly 100 golf courses on more than 8,000 acres of land owned by India’s Ministry of Defence, the largest Government land owner in India.

The report disclosed that at least 32 square kilometres of rent free land had been handed over to a privately run company, Army Golf Zone, which operates the courses. The report also revealed that Army commanders had procured 27 golf carts two years ago by passing them off as mechanised wheelchairs for military hospitals and track alignment reconnaissance vehicles for sapper units.

It was Paul Gallico, the author, who famously said that ‘golf is a funny game. If there is larceny in a man, golf will bring it out!’ The CAG said that private clubs, similar to those run by the British Raj in the colonial era, for an annual membership fee, provided membership of the golf clubs to Army officers, senior officers of other armed services and Police, retired service personnel, senior civil servants, business men, diplomats, other civilians and foreigners.

Related facilities such as accommodation, reception halls, bars, libraries, billiard rooms, etc. generated income for the clubs over and above the green fees charged for playing golf and the revenue so generated was not credited to Government accounts and was presumed credited to regimental funds, to which the CAG had no access. It was also found that the Army leased its facilities for private parties and weddings. The CAG said it could not give an exact figure for the losses to revenue at this stage of the investigation as it did not have full access to all the documentation, however preliminary findings suggested that the losses ran into several billion rupees.

Rekha Gupta, Deputy Head of CAG, said: “The level of mismanagement we have recorded is extremely high but difficult to quantify as we were not given full access to certain documents. Anything that is for profit should be made accountable and transparent at Parliamentary level.”

The CAG’s intermediate finding was that the golf courses should not have been built in the first place as golf is not an authorised military activity.

Financial scandals

India has been engulfed in the recent past by a number of financial scandals such as the Commonwealth Games, cash for votes in Parliament, land scams involving senior military and civil officers and politicians, a telecommunications scandal related to the allocation of 2G spectrum, etc.

This report by the CAG adds fuel to the fire lit by anti corruption activist Anna Hazare and his supporters demanding that Parliament pass legislation to set up an anti corruption agency called the Lokpal at the centre and Lokayuktha at the State level, which Indian politicians and bureaucrats have been successfully dodging for over half a century.

The most recent attempt was circumvented, at the end of the winter session of Parliament, by a filibuster in the upper house , the Rajya Sabha, after the Lok Sabha, the lower house, had approved it.

The Indian military was an institution which in the public eye was credible and had a clean reputation, given that it was a fully-blooded Army which had sacrificed men to defend the nation. It was nurtured in the British martial tradition, coming down from the colonial British Indian Army and much involved in regimental mess etiquette, military tattoos, traditional cavalry, polo, flag marches, etc.

The love for golf was a part of this connection, introduced to the military by the Scottish Regiments serving in India; Scottish officers officering Indian regiments of the British Indian army and Scottish civil servants and businessmen would have introduced golf to the civilians.

Golf is such an integral part of military life with the Indian army officer class that even in Thimpu, Bhutan, a sovereign country, where an Indian Army Brigade is garrisoned, the commanding brigadier has his own golf course, which is also used by UN personnel, diplomats and Bhutanese elites.

Eagles’ Golf Links

At or about the same time that India’s CAG revelations on the shenanigans concerning golf and the Indian Army hit the headlines, it must be by coincidence (the dictionary has it that coincidence means the occurrence of events simultaneously or consecutively, in a striking manner, but without any causal connection) and not by design, that the Sri Lankan newspapers were full of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) opening our fourth golf course at China Bay, Trincomalee.

One has to necessarily surmise that like in the case of the Indian Army, the issue whether golf is an ‘authorised activity’ for the SLAF would be a moot point. On 7 January, this golf course, owned and maintained by the SLAF, named the Eagles’ Golf Links, was ceremonially opened at China Bay a few kilometres from Trincomalee.

The promotional material says: “The Eagles Golf Links is truly complete, with fairways extending down from par 3 to par 5 and challenges which include water hazards, sand bunkers, roughs and dog legs left and right. There is an outstanding and breathtaking view from the teeing grounds. Rising and sinking carpets of green, traditionally designed arch bridges and cozy (sic) shades of garden hedges are an absolute delight when one walks down the fairways.”

It was reported that the former club house of the venerable Sea Anglers Club, coming down from colonial times, after a refurbishment, serves as the club house for the Eagles’ Golf Links.

It stands at the beginning of the first tee, and is described in the promotional material as: “A great place for a golfer who seeks relaxation at the club house, which offers a unique sense of natural beauty. The lounge and the open lawns recede into the bay and simply mesmerises anybody, golfer or not. The Eagles’ Golf Course offers luxury cabins which can aptly be termed as star class. This offers the golfer the chance to truly relax away from the hustles (sic) of a busy schedule.”

It is indeed commendable that the SLAF has refurbished the old Sea Anglers Club and is putting it to use, since this a historic property which had experienced traumatic days during the time of civil strife. The Sea Anglers has a military connection of its very own; the General commanding the Indian Army division stationed in the Eastern Province during the time the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was here, Major General Jameel, had his headquarters located at the Sea Anglers Club. The promotional material for Eagles’ Golf Links also offers angling as an activity for the golfer, ensuring the survival of an old tradition.

Origins of golf

The sport of golf originated in Scotland in the 15th century. A golf course has 18 holes, because, it is firmly believed, that’s how long it took the Scots to finish a bottle of whiskey!

In its primitive incarnation, golfers struck a rock around a primitive course with an equally primitive stick or club. Scotland consists of undulating hills and valleys, bogs, marshes, heather, gorse fields and forests. The rock was hit from one of the few isolated flat green grass areas to another trying to avoid the natural hazards.

Early courses in Scotland were mostly by the sea, with windswept dunes and jungle like roughs, which devoured wayward shots. The term still applied to such seaside courses is links or link lands; Eagles’ Golf Links is therefore a true golf links.

It is to recreate this environment that when golf courses are developed on flat land, artificial hazards such as sand bunkers, water hazards, roughs and dog legs have to be created. Trees have to be planted along the fairways.

Scottish soldiers and merchants introduced the game to the colonies. Scottish planters built courses at Nuwara Eliya and Kandy. Scots businessmen in Colombo built three courses, the Anderson Golf Course, the Havelock Golf Course and the Royal Colombo. The Royal Colombo introduced a novel, very South Asian hazard to golf – its logo has a crow carrying away a golf ball in its beak!

The British Army built a course at the Diyatalawa cantonment. The developers of the sugar plantation in Uva, Brookers, built a course at Pelwatta. An investor built a course at Mahaberitenne, the Victoria Golf Course near Kandy.

The number of golf courses in a country was once touted as an indicator of development. But, unfortunately, by that time the Kandy golf course had been bulldozed for the Teaching Hospital, the Havelock course abandoned and later the BMICH was constructed on the land and the Anderson too bulldozed for a housing development.

There is some talk of a golf course being developed at the Bogahapattiya forest reserve which links Udawalawe National Park with the forest reserves at Beragala, which has worried environmentalists as it lies on an elephant migration corridor.

A ubiquitous sport

Golf’s physical requirements are modest. It’s what you play when you’re too out of shape for football, hockey, basketball or rugby! Players come in all shapes, sizes, ages and genders. Westbrook Pegler described golf as ‘the most useless outdoor game ever devised to waste the time and try the spirit of man’.

The Detroit News once expressed the opinion that ‘a golf ball is a small indented object which remains on the tee while a perspiring citizen fans it vigorously with a large club!’

I had an old uncle who golfed all his life, who had his own definition for GOLF – “Getting Old and Living Fine!” The rewards and punishments inherent in the game, getting into a rough or bunker with a careless drive, or losing a ball to a water hazard, has made it one of the most ubiquitous individual sports.

There is a story about a player whose shots were so wayward, who spent so much time in the bunker, that he ended up getting all the mail addressed to Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Gadaffi and Osama bin Laden et al!

Immensely popular

Golf has gained such popularity that its most famous shots were not even hit on this planet. In 1971 during NASA’s Apollo 14 moon mission, Astronaut Commander Alan Shepherd took two swings, during his moon walk, with an improvised 6 iron formed with a club head he had smuggled onto the spacecraft. The club head was fixed on to a NASA general issue lunar sample scoop handle. It seems that golf was not ‘an authorised military activity’ even for the United States armed forces!

Golf is a sport for the wealthy. Equipment and related accessory costs are high and clubs charge astronomical membership and green fees for playing. The only non affluent golfers are the caddies who carry the golfer’s clubs, following them around the course, who by constant watching while they are working and constant practice, when free have mastered the game.

Many caddies have become championship players. Herbert V. Prochnow expressed the opinion that “many caddies become good golfers because, unlike businessmen, they never read even one of the books on how to play golf!” The number of former caddies from Sri Lanka working as professionals at West Asian golf clubs substantiates this route to excellence in golf.

Golf clubs

The first golf club was formed in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1744, the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith. The most important centre for golf today is the St. Andrews Society of Golfers founded in 1754. St. Andrews is a picturesque town in Scotland on the North Sea.

In 1834, King William bestowed upon it the designation of ‘Royal & Ancient’. In 1897, the Royal & Ancient (R&A) appointed a Rules of Golf Committee to document a set of rules for the game. The first club outside Scotland was formed in 1766 in England. The first outside Britain was formed in 1820 in Bangalore, India.

The game spread on the wings of the British Empire, trade and commerce and British military expansion, mainly by Scottish expatriates. Today it would be difficult to find a country without a golf course.

In 1894 the United States Golf Association (USGA) was created. Since 1951 golf has been supervised jointly by the R&A and the USGA. In 1916 the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) of America was formed. The four major international tournaments today are the US and British Opens, the P.G.A. and the Masters. The Masters Tournament is unique not only for the distinctive green blazer worn by the winner but also that it is annually played at the same club, the Augusta National in August, Georgia, USA. Today top level professional golfers like Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods have huge and lucrative sponsorship contracts.

A huge business

Golf itself today is a huge business. To take an example from Canada, where golf is the most popular participatory sport: Canada has the highest number of golfers per head worldwide. The Canadian tax code allows entertainment expenses incurred to promote business to be deducted.

In 1972, to curb abuse by tax evasion and avoidance, expenses on golfing, yachting and hiring of hunting lodges were disallowed. Today there is pressure to bring back the tax break for golf. Around 25 Canadian Members of Parliament and Senators, who have golf courses in their constituencies, support the move. The Head of PGA Canada says: “We just want equity and fairness.”

If restaurant bills and tickets for ice hockey games are deductible, why not green fees for golf? The Revenue Department counters that they have no way of verifying that business was actually discussed on the greens. May be taking an analogy from cricket, something akin to stump mikes on the fairways, greens and at the tees combined with CCTV cameras, both monitored by Revenue Department snoops, is the remedy? By all accounts the opening of the Eagles’ Golf Links was a grand affair. Around 50 golfers and VIPs were airlifted by the SLAF from Colombo to China Bay. A putt at the ninth hole was the inaugural act. An SLAF flypast followed. It is interesting to conjecture what the Government’s Auditor General will make of all this.

Will the greens of Eagles’ Links and the roof of the Sea Anglers Club be plastered with audit queries as to whether, in Sri Lanka, golf is actually an authorised military activity, on which money raised from tax payers, voted by Parliament for the defence of the Republic, by the SLAF, can be legitimately spent?

What happens to the revenue generated by the Eagles’ Links? Fodder for the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament? The Chief Accountant of the SLAF better ensure that both his ejector seat and parachute are fully functional!

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)