Her father is a retired agrostologist which means he studied grasses. In her childhood years, it was not unusual for her to play with the boys in her neighbourhood. Maybe that helps explain Nuzhat Gul’s confidence as the first female turf manager of the Royal Springs Golf Course in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir.
At 35, Gul is the first woman to look after the 18-hole golf course. She holds this historic post for historic reasons. In 1999, as the war between India and Pakistan broke out in Kargil, countries of the West issued advisories to its citizens. The U.S. turf manager of Royal Springs duly left.
No other qualified turf professionals were available when the job came her way in 2002. She wound up taking what she describes as a job involving lots of physical labour. “It is definitely not a white-collar job but a challenging 24-hour job,” says Gul.
Some years back when she attended a course in turf management at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, she was the only woman in a class of 64. She stood apart for other reasons as well. “I was the only woman from a rural background and a developing country,” recalls the soft-spoken Gul.
The game of golf was introduced to India during British rule and was only played by the social elite after independence. “But now it has come out of the cantonments,” Gul says, “It is a common man’s game now. Golf in India is being taken up in a big way to the extent that builders are even adding golf courses to increase the value of their properties.”
The number of golf courses in India is currently 220. It is growing fast with 37 under construction and 65 more being planned, according to Anil Dev, the editor of Golf Plus magazine.
According to Gul, this rapid expansion of golf courses is creating a demand for qualified turf professionals which she hopes will open the field to more women. In fact, she adds that turf professionals are not limited to golf but can also care for the grounds used for other sports such as cricket.
The average base salary globally for golf course superintendents in 2005 was $68,914 and goes as high as $125,000, according to Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management School in New Jersey.
To Gul, there is “no sight like that of a perfectly-manicured lawn.” But recently this self-declared “home bird” declined an offer from a Dubai-based golf course because she wanted to stay close to her family.
Gul started her career as an intern in landscape management with real estate giant DLF in Chandigarh, Punjab, when some friends told her about an opening at the Srinagar Golf Course. She had just completed a bachelor’s degree in landscaping and floriculture from Punjab University.
Going to Punjab University also got her away from the conflict situation that affected her town as she was growing up. In the 1990s, armed insurgency was at its peak in Kashmir with gunfights and bombings almost daily occurrences.
Of course, as a turf manager, Gul’s greatest challenge comes not from armed militants but from white grubs, an insect that attracts the bears from nearby forest areas onto the course.
Just early last year, thanks to the white grubs, she had a torn-up golf course on her hands with bears having trampled all over the greens. In fact, she recalls with a smile, how newspapers ran stories about a woman spoiling the expensive golf course. She was under tremendous pressure from the management at the time to solve the problem. But since most of the chemicals for eliminating white grubs are not allowed in India, Gul had to find a solution herself.
Described by regulars in the golfing community as a “thorough professional with restless sense of urgency for learning and growth of golf superintendence”, Gul is certainly an inspiration for women who want to explore this unusual career option.