Howard Swan chronicles the history of the abandoned Kolar Gold Fields course in southern India, and describes his attempts to bring it back to life.
The British left many things behind when they departed the Indian subcontinent, including a system of government, a remarkable railway network, cricket and, of course, the game of golf.
India’s regular trouncing of England on the cricket field may be hard for us Brits to take, but one can only admire the nation’s obsession with the game and its commercial success there. Golf may be cricket’s poor neighbour but it has its place in Indian society (after all the oldest club outside British shores is Royal Calcutta), essentially as a game for the privileged few and the military. But India’s economy continues to grow apace, and the country is dynamic, forward-looking and exciting, if at times a little chaotic and dangerous (particularly on the roads!).
One part of that economy is the Kolar Gold Fields, a 30,000 acre plot east of Bangalore on the road to Chennai. Gold was mined here as much as eighteen centuries ago, but it was not until the late nineteenth century that the British arrived and began mining in Kolar. Around 300,000 people lived in the KGF community and serviced the twelve mines in its heyday.
For almost a century it boasted the world’s deepest mine, Champions Reef, a mere 3,500 metres deep, with a single shaft with lifting gear to it brought from Wales to Chennai (then Madras). But because of its size the gear could not be brought to Kolar, some 250 km away. so they built a railway, the first wide gauge track in India – which is still there. The railway was not the only first, as Kolar Gold Fields was the first city in Asia to get electricity.
With the British came golf. The KGF Gymkhana Golf Club was set up in 1885, during the early days of the mines with the clubhouse and its 12 hole golf course laid out by the miners.
The club has everything Victorian expats relished – a wonderful old clubhouse, traditional bar, library, ballroom with sprung floor, dormie house, a wonderfully traditional snooker and billiard room and tennis courts – all built in a period of six months by Indians, for the British.
It became a thriving club and, if not quite that now, still boasts some 600 members from those left in KGF and beyond.
However, the splendour of the Club and all the buildings around it and throughout the Gold Fields – there are some truly wonderful examples of period architecture still there, albeit unlived in and deteriorating – pale into insignificance when one steps out onto the golf course.
Taking advantage of splendid rolling terrain, but agronomically rudimentary, the twelve holes wind their way among the former mining community in a bold yet treeless landscape.
Touching the cricket ground, complete with Victorian grandstand, the twelve holes now have a secondary internal loop to make up the full round.
There is no irrigation as water was not readily available, and no greens. Goodish browns still exist, with tees one would not see the likes of today. However both do a job in allowing golf to be played in the KGF community.
Besides the Gymkhana Club, a second course at the Camp Club existed, but is no longer identifiable. A third layout of nine holes, with browns and roughly grassed fairways, remains in the custody of the company which developed from the contractors who mined with locally manufactured machinery (now part of a Japanese earthmoving conglomerate).
For over a century KGF thrived, but eventually the gold fields were exhausted and the mines were abandoned some ten years ago. Today the land lays derelict. The buildings, still stunning and statuesque, lie empty and locked, decaying through heat and monsoon. The railway, built to service the mines, now services a commuting population, with four daily trains each taking 3,000 people to work in Bangalore.
However, some occupation has come to KGF. While the mines remain mothballed some schools and colleges have sprung up. There is an inkling of revival.
An enthusiastic government employee, a national director for key skills development who happened to have been born in KGF, has a commitment to put something back into his home town and has developed a vision of a training city for India being based in the Gold Fields.
The opportunity exists to achieve his target and golf, with other sports will play an important part in it all.
A Firstgolf Training Centre is currently under construction at KGF, adjacent to a newly renovated Institute for Key Skills Development, with studies being taught under the Government’s Modular Employable Skills scheme. A three hole course, with three tees on each hole, accompanied by a short game, bunker and putting academy, plus nurseries for turf and landscape is designed and will literally provide the training ground for the students.
The centre, the second in a chain of up to 600 envisaged by the government, replicates the one in central Bangalore, now almost ready for opening, and will be open to the public and be maintained and operated by the students under professional direction.
As the second and third stages of this project, the present course at KGF’s Gymkhana Club will be redeveloped. It has been redesigned to provide a comprehensive range and golf academy, incorporating a three hole academy course and nine hole junior course. Added to that is to be a nine hole public course, sitting alongside an eighteen hole resort course.
Each will be worked on by students who have been taught and have practised on the Training Centre facility.
The initiative was launched at the Vocational Training Convention held in Bangalore in February, with over 2,000 delegates from the subcontinent’s public sector. Once established it is anticipated that the curriculum for skills development will be widened to other sports and recreation to include cricket, tennis and bowls as well as general landscaping.
So the redevelopment, the redesign, the renovation of the KGF Gymkhana Club and course will see the revitalisation of the Gold Fields, the creation of long term employment, and, most importantly, the revitalisation of the community. Perhaps golf can reach out in a similar way elsewhere in the world? All we need is the vision to lay out such facilities – naturally, financially and socially sustainable – so that many more can join this great game and make it even greater.
Howard Swan, principal architect at Swan Golf Designs, has been working in India for some four years, most prominently in the renovation of the Karnataka Golf Association course in Bangalore which, this month, hosts the Bonallack Trophy.
This article was initially featured in the April 2010 issue of Golf Course Architecture.