MARK Twain, who famously defined golf as a good walk spoiled, obviously never teed off in Sri Lanka - even if you played with a croquet mallet in a blindin grainstorm, golfing in a country blessed with such achingly beautiful scenery could only be an edifying experience.
Despite a golfing history that extends back to the 19th century colonial period, Sri Lanka has only three 18-hole courses despite being 10 times the size of Singapore. Years ago, there were several more courses but with cricket becoming the national obsession, golf has fallen out of favour. These days,it's more of an expatriate's game, and there are only three golf professionals in the country - one per club.
Even so, few countries can offer such an extensive range of options in such a confined space, and visitors would be wise to take advantage of the attractions and activities on offer - from pristine beaches and ancient architectural sites to hill stations, religious festivals and wildlife parks.
If you're still game for golf, its charming courses are more than up to par.
Victoria Golf Club
'If it's worth looking at in Sri Lanka, it's up a hill,' says Jannine Weeratunga, Secretary of the Victoria Golf Club, which is located at Rajawella,a pleasant 20km drive from Kandy through the dusty, bumpy back roads of Sri Lanka's hill country.
True enough, a short trek up an unpaved slope is rewarded with magnificent vistas of a tree-studded plain far below, a picturesque reservoir beyond that and rows of lush green hills rising in the distance. Cattle and wild animals graze contentedly in the shade and a wonderful sense of tranquility pervades the air. 'This is our own little bit of magic,' says Weeratunga. It's also the club's driving range - welcome to golf, Sri Lanka style.
Designed by the British golf architect Donald Steel and completed about four years ago, Victoria is a stunning endorsement of Sri Lankan golf - a hilly,undulating Par 73 course set within 500 acres of former pastureland. It is characterised by great views, elevated tee boxes and fairways populated with distinctive Mara trees, whose giant canopies can cover large sections of fairway. The overall impression is of a golf course that barely seems to be present, so overwhelming is the sense of untamed nature around it.
The view from the tee on the signature sixth hole, for example, is simply spectacular. With the broad Mahaweli River running along one side of the fairway, the joys of golfing in Sri Lanka are brought resoundingly into focus.
One unique aspect of golf here is that if you have a habit of spraying shots all over the course, you won't lose too many balls. That's because in addition to regular caddies, each group is preceded by fore caddies - or spotters -whose job is to mark the place where each shot lands. Now that's a luxury Iwish all clubs could afford.
Victoria is the site of a popular annual international amateur golf tournament hosted by Sri Lankan Airlines and according to Lalindra Ranaweera,marketing coordinator at the club, golf at this spectacular location is only partially responsible. The company that runs the club is building facilities to encourage more family-type excursions - bungalow plots are for sale and an80-acre hotel site is also earmarked for future development. Weeratunga affectionately refers to the place as 'Sleepy Hollow', but it may not be for much longer.
Victoria Golf Club, PO Box 7, Rajawella. Tel: (94) 071-743003.
Royal Colombo Golf Club
The defining feature at Royal Colombo - aside from the locals milling around the water hazards to retrieve errant shots (in exchange for a nominal fee, of course) - is the still-active railway line that runs through the course. 'One or two golfers have hit the train,' says Club Captain Lallith Ramanayake. 'Now the drivers go very fast through the course!'
Founded in 1879, Royal Colombo is naturally the most accessible of Sri Lanka's golf courses. Even so, it is relatively easy to arrange a tee time at short notice. The layout is flat but challenging - thanks to an assortment of hazards - and similar to, say, Royal Selangor Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur. A high wall borders on side of the course to prevent balls from landing in nearby residences.
One of the best things about playing golf in Sri Lanka is that the green fees (between US$20 and US$25 at all three courses) entitle you to play as many holes as you want - golf-crazy visitors from Korea and Japan have been known to squeeze in two and a half rounds before packing it in, although the heat and humidity in Colombo may preclude that.
While the course is well maintained and the greens are excellent, the caddies are also the best on the island - unfailingly polite when you actually hit a ball where intended ('Good shot, sir!') and judiciously silent when you don't. A round is best followed by some quality time on the inviting large verandah overlooking the treacherous eighth green.
'I asked for them to make this green the toughest,' says Club Secretary Lionel Almeida with a twinkle in his eye.
'That way I can sit on the verandah with my drink and count: one putt, twoputts, three putts ... '
Royal Colombo Golf Club, 223 Model Farm Road, Colombo. Tel: (94)-1-695431,
Nuwara Eliya Golf Club
Meanwhile, a drive up to Nuwara Eliya (or, as the locals seem to call it, Nu-rel-ya), the British-built hill station (at 1,860 metres) that is Sri Lanka's tea-growing capital, is a cool retreat from the coastal heat. It may take a 5-hour drive to get there from Colombo, but the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club,built by a Scottish regiment and opened for play in 1889, is a captivating reminder of the town's storied past. The simple clubhouse retains much of its colonial charm, including a well-worn bar and a photograph-lined dining room where delicious curry lunches are served.
The course itself winds its way quirkily through the town, with many holes dissected by pathways used by the locals. The 15th, for example, requires a tee shot across a driveway leading to the Prime Minister's holiday residence. Club Secretary LHC Tissera, a fixture at the course for almost five decades, says that the club is more than an integral part of the city. 'Take the golf club out of Nuwara Eliya, and you have no Nuwara Eliya.'
Some of the holes call for an intimidating shot along narrow tree-linedc orridors but the elevated three-hole stretch from the 12th to the 14th is perhaps the most scenic, comprising a trip to 'Little Switzerland' - so named because clouds commonly descend upon this 'alpine' part of the course.
The nice thing about playing at altitude, of course, is that shots travel further than at sea level - important for golfers with tender egos. After all,hitting a dribbler that travels 10 per cent further is so much more gratifying. Still, if your golf game doesn't elicit a smile, sipping tea on the immaculate lawn overlooking the first fairway while pondering your next assault on the course surely will.
Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, tel: (94) 52-22835. Email: email@example.com