Kodai's ‘Cheese’ Mani hangs up his coat, not his clubs

Mani, who recently demitted office as secretary, Kodaikanal Golf Course, was a rare administrator who was a hands-on problem solver and one of the earliest in the country to ring in green practices on the golf course.
(left) Kodai Golf Course; (right) ‘Cheese’ Mani
(left) Kodai Golf Course; (right) ‘Cheese’ Mani

CHENNAI: Sports administrators get more brickbats than bouquets and one often wonders if it is nothing more than ego that keeps them going.

“It is a simple, all-consuming love for the particular sport,” says ‘Cheese’ Mani, a name familiar to generations of golfers in the country for the last 30 years.

Mani, who recently demitted office as secretary, Kodaikanal Golf Course, was a rare administrator who was a hands-on problem solver and one of the earliest in the country to ring in green practices on the golf course. Running highly competitive summer and winter tournaments in a hill station, and catering to a sudden influx of players come with their own challenges.

A golfer recalls how while motoring down to Kodai for a tournament in December 2017, an SUV rammed into his Sedan from behind and jammed the boot which held the golf kits. “We reached late evening. Everything was shut. The tournament was scheduled to begin at 8 am the next day. Mani solved all our issues and also made it possible for us to tee off on time,” he says.

Visiting golfers from other states will tell you that Mani is the go-to man for finding a caddy, helping you secure good accommodation during peak golf and general tourism weeks in the summer, and giving you tips on what club to use on dicey holes. He is also pretty neat in fixing you a perfect chilli vodka. The efficiency is reflected in the manner in which the course is maintained.

A grassland, the surrounding areas of the club continue to be a habitat for the Indian bison, many of which are known to saunter across holes. Old caddies there will tell you stories of tiger sightings. One has to be very fit physically to play all 18 holes as the terrain is not suitable for golf buggies.

When Mani, who grew up in Chennai (went to St. Bede’s Higher Secondary School and graduated from Vivekananda College), was called to Kodai to take over the reins of the family’s cheese business, he took up golf. But at that time, he was not an expert on grasslands, habitats and the complementary ecosystem.

When he was told that the easiest way of maintaining the turf is to spray pesticides, he was dumb-struck. Averse to polluting the ground water and the run-off water that could impact the environment downstream, he began to look for alternate methods.

“Luckily, I came across another course superintendent, who mentored me, during one of my travels. And, I understood the importance of sharing information on ground conditions,” says Mani.

Playing the sport also helped him grasp the nuances of building and nurturing a course. “With so much greenery, you need to make it viable for the players and at the same time ensure it is a sustainable ecosystem,” he adds. He tapped the run-off water and channelled it into a tank, which meets the water requirements of the course and is also a reserve for the local municipality. Elsewhere, golf courses depend on local municipalities for water.

This green approach has won the club numerous environmental awards. The groundsmen and caddies are locals, and their livelihoods depend on the course. Mani ensures that they are employed (on course maintenance), even when the sport is not being played.

Over 40 tournaments are held during the peak season in May while around 10 are hosted in December. The Palani Hills Cup and the Addicts Tournament are some of the events that attract maximum participation. GIt is a challenging course and golfers who have experienced it have fond takeaways.

“I got the first of my six holes-in-one here. It is a fabulous club and Mani is an excellent course curator,” says Shankar Prasad, a regular visitor to Kodai. “When you have been holding the reins for 30 years, you tend to become set in your ways. At the end of the day, a golf course has to be a viable business. The new person would bring in new ideas and fresh energy,” he says graciously. Let us say cheese to that.

(The writer is the Lady Captain at TNGF)

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