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Bombay Gymkhana first opened its doors strictly to moneyed Britishers.
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High on gloss, low on airs
As older establishments close their doors, premium clubs offering state-of-the-art facilities and personalised service open for upwardly mobile Indians.
Chandigarh boy Navdeep Shergill literally grew up in the city's golf club, practicing his golf swing, savouring chilli cheese toast and, when he came of age, evening drinks on the restaurant's outdoor patio. He and his family brought in the New Year at the club, and even celebrated personal milestones there. And that's why Shergill, today a senior vice-president with HSBC bank and a Delhi resident, understands the sense of community a club can provide and seeks similar experiences for his family, as a member of the DLF Golf and Country Club. "My son and I play golf, and my wife uses the pool and the gym. It's also perfect for entertaining, and it's in Gurgaon, so it is close by, " he says.
With membership to the country's older clubs becoming so restricted, India's upwardly mobile are looking for alternative avenues where they can enjoy similar bonhomie and facilities. To cater to this crowd, new but exclusive private clubs have opened across India over the last decade, offering state-of-theart facilities and dining experiences for their discerning patrons who are willing to pay the Rs 5 lakh upwards annual membership fees these clubs demand.
In the more luxurious areas of Delhi-NCR the clubs - the DLF Golf and Country Club in Gurgaon and the Jaypee Greens Golf and Spa Resort in Greater Noida - weren't designed purely for a social purpose. They were meant to push up the value of real estate in the area. Today, members of these clubs are from the corporate and business world, though the clubs themselves are keen on wooing the diplomatic community. In another corner of the country, near Mumbai's international airport, is the Waterstones Club, owned by the MARS group. Spread across five acres in Andheri East, its swish entrance is more reminiscent of a five-star hotel than the gymkhanas of yore. Its few hundred members are a mix of Indians and jet-setting expats.
The clubs all offer state-of-the-art facilities - the 142-acre DLF course was designed by American golfer Arnold Palmer and the mammoth 197 acre Jaypee Greens Golf and Spa Resort course by Australian pro Greg Norman is the largest in India. Both clubs also have swimming pools and gymnasiums, and DLF also has tennis and squash courts. Waterstones offers squash, badminton and tennis, an outdoor swimming pool and a games room where members can play carrom, chess and board games. They even have a cards room, a throwback to the older clubs.
But that's where attempts to measure up to the older establishments end;in terms of service, these newer clubs are closer to the five-star hotels, and the staff is trained to pamper guests in ways that the crusty oldtimers couldn't begin to imagine. "The club stays a step ahead of its members. Before we can think of what is needed, the club seems to do it, " says Shergill, mentioning the new all-weather pool DLF is building as well as the new undulating course designed by golfer Garry Player. Anitya Chand, the head golf pro at the club says, "It will be a challenge for members because it's harder to hit off a surface like that, " she says.
These services, of course, come at a high price, and the clubs emphasise that they too accept members at their discretion. Waterstones manager Bruno Loosli says the management doesn't advertise and membership works more on recommendations. "We take pride in saying that our members are a very closely curated bunch of people who are looking to mingle with other like-minded folks, " he says. Saif Mizbah, who looks after PR for DLF golf club, says memberships which now cost Rs 9 lakh for five years are open only to "people with a DLF association". So you either have to live in or rent a home built by DLF, own a DLF-built shop, or work out of an office space built by the real estate company. Askari Zaidi, head of corporate communications for the Jaypee Group, says a five-year membership to the club costs Rs 6 lakh.
Okay with the joining fee, Shergill does say it costs more to use the facilities at newer clubs. But the upside is that at a club like DLF, with its corporate profile, makes for a great networking hub. For those who do sign on, the club becomes an important meeting point, more so with the growing expat community in India. Paul Good, CEO of a logistics company, paid Rs 5 lakh for an annual membership to Waterstones and says, "My life in Mumbai is divided between three things - my work, my family and spending time at the club. " His daughter, who hasn't started school, enjoys spending time at the club where she can mingle with other members' kids her age. "Without this place, I really can't see what we would have done to unwind, " he says.
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