This exotic golf course might have the world’s best par-5s (yes, really)

As golf stories go, this one had an air of fable to it.

In a secluded spot in central Nepal, in the shadow of the Himalayas, a self-taught course had been designed by experts that experts deemed worthy of being included in the top 100 in the world.

None other than Tom Doak had given it an “11” on his personal rating scale, which only ranges from 1 to 10.

A skeptic by nature, I had my doubts when I first heard the rave reviews a few years ago. I should take a look at this course myself.

I finally made it last month.

Getting to the Himalayan Golf Course takes some effort pretty much no matter where you start. I live in Los Angeles, but my work as a technologist often takes me to India. I added a few days to my itinerary before a recent trip. From Coimbatore, the bustling metropolis where I was doing business, I flew to Mumbai and stayed at an airport hotel where a lavish Indian wedding reception was taking place in the lobby. Dodging the revelers and the marigold petals, I made my way to my room to snag a few hours of sleep before puddle jumping to the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu and then on to Pokhara, the country’s second largest city.

Three flights, 1,700 miles and 22 hours later I was almost there.

Built in the 1990s, the Himalayan Golf Course is situated in a formerly undeveloped river valley.

Google Earth

Mention Nepal and many people picture rugged base camps, the snowy springboards for attacks on Everest. Pokhara is not like that. Although towering peaks frame the horizon, the elevation is a modest 2,600 feet and the climate is subtropical. I arrived in the early evening, in the middle of the monsoon season, and settled into a modest spot in the city. When I woke up the next morning, I found it had rained three inches overnight. More was expected. The weather app on my phone called for a 100 percent chance of rain, with a flash at 3pm, the time I was hoping to play.

Known as the gateway to the Himalayas, Pokhara occupies a historically significant location along an ancient trade route between India and China. It is also home to a large contingent of Gurkha soldiers, elite recruits who have long served in the Nepalese, Indian and British armies, as well as in UN peacekeeping missions. It was a Gurkha soldier-turned-British officer, Major Ram Gurung, who designed and built the Himalayan Golf Course in a once-undeveloped river valley in the 1990s.

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The property is about 30 minutes out of town if you are arriving by taxi and your taxi driver doesn’t get lost. Mine did, stopping only three times to ask shepherds for directions. The landscape was pastoral, lush and hilly. Eventually we came across a guard house which I recognized from a YouTube video I had seen about the course. I asked my driver to give in.

The Himalayan’s route works back and forth across a river several times.

jon wall

A uniformed security guard saluted as we drove by. We rumbled down a rutted road, flanked by the remains of half-finished buildings, the remnants of an unopened resort, and parked by the clubhouse, a boxy cinder block building bordering a patio on which six men were seated, with the court beyond stretched you.

One of the men was Bhuwan Gurung, an affable 47-year-old not to be confused with course designer Major Gurung. Bhuwan works as the general manager of the property.

Weeks before my visit, I had attempted to email and call the course to let them know I was coming. I hadn’t received an answer. But a colleague in India called for me and Bhuwan was waiting for me.

I prefer to travel light and had left my poles at home. But I had brought a pair of golf shoes, a couple of balls and a handful of tees, all of which I wanted to leave as a donation. When Bhuwan told me how valuable t-shirts are at the club, I hit out at myself for not bringing dozens more.

When Bhuwan told me how valuable t-shirts are at the club, I hit out at myself for not bringing dozens more.

For rental clubs, the options didn’t include the latest and greatest. But they weren’t bad either: a reasonably recent vintage Nike driver and a set of Titleist cavity back irons. I paid my green fee of about $50 plus another $10 for the rental and headed out with my caddy, a soft-spoken local, to pair it with Bhuwan in a three-ball. Our third was a young man named Raj who grew up in the area and later worked at LinkedIn in Silicon Valley before returning home to be close to family.

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World-class courses often open modestly and let you join the round. The Himalayas follow this blueprint. His first two holes are unremarkable. But the third tee yields one of the game’s most compelling reveals: a panorama of the vast, river-dotted valley through which much of the course flows.

I could write endless superlatives about the Himalayas, but I’ll start there. In a ranking of courses with the best collection of par 5s in the world, I would nominate Pebble Beach and Augusta National as top contenders. And I would put the Himalayas above them both.

There are three on the scorecard, starting with the 550-yard 6th course, which has an Insta-ready island green fronted by a series of oddly shaped pot bunkers. Fair or not, teeing off from the tips requires a carry over 200 yards across the river to the upper right. This is the safe game. The tiger line is at the top left giving a clearer angle to the green. I like to choose my targets from the tee on the horizon, and in this case snow-capped Annapurna did the trick, its 26,000+ foot peak splitting the clouds.

The tee off on the 6th: Bite off as much as you dare.

Jon Wall (both)

The shot into the green will also make you think.

If the 6th is adrenaline and exhilaration, the par-5 10th is old-school understatement, with echoes of St. Andrews on a tee shot that requires a centerline decision through rugged overgrown hills some 250 yards away. The 15th, the last of the par 5s, is not the least. At 515 yards it turns left and rises over a saddle that takes you up and out of the gorge to a green that sits on a ledge overlooking the valley you just traversed. In the afternoon when we played it, a small flock of sheep trailed right behind us. Cows grazed in the distance. Somewhere out there were goats too.

The entrance to 15 is covered by a saddle.

Jon Wall (both)

Looking back at the hole behind the green.

Farm animals in the Himalayas do more than just watch. As at Brora, the course has wire fencing around its greens to protect against ruminants. Machine maintenance is minimal. The fairways are unirrigated. The ground crew relies on a single mower, a gift from the R&A. During the dry season, the course plays tight, with generous rollouts in the fairways. The ground was soft when I visited, but the shots were not plugged. They landed with a gentle impact.

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As one of only two groups on the course that day, our pace was brisk and the company was everything I could have asked for. Bhuwan is a golf junkie of the highest order, passionate about the game but not overbearing with his opinions on it. With Raj stepping in as translator, he shared some of his background. Bhuwan has been on the Old Course at St Andrews, a bucket list trip, and has competed at the South Asian circuit now and then. In his free time, he works on a course near the Tibetan border that, when completed, will be the highest facility in the world. I would put his handicap at plus-3.

The weather forecast was only partially correct. The rain fell, but not in torrents, and the lights never flashed. The rain was warm and pleasant. It barely caught my attention.

More attention-grabbing was the water in the river raging with mountain runoff. I’ve seen calmer currents on class 5 rafting trips. The Himalayan route works back and forth across the river and requires six or seven hikes over makeshift footbridges. I just looked at the foaming river and tried not to think about what would happen if I slipped.

I just looked at the foaming river and tried not to think about what would happen if I slipped.

Dusk was approaching when we set off on the 18th. We returned to enjoy the view over beers and bowls of pasta. Runway towers were erected along the fairway of the 3rd hole, early signs of the construction of an international airport, the sort of project the scope and timing of which will surely be decided in the corridors of government power. I can’t say when it will be ready and how it might affect the course. Maybe Bhuwan knows. It didn’t feel like my job to ask.

Instead we chatted idly, sipped our foam and ate. The sun was low. My taxi was waiting. I said goodbye to my playing partners and started the long journey home.

Is the Himalayan Golf Course in the World Top 100? I could get this over with.

But architecture aside, we could probably use a metric that measures inspiration. On a scale of 1 to 10 I would give it an 11.

Tom Brown is a technologist and a GOLF magazine Top 100 Panelists.

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