Friday, August 5, 2016

Brazil: The New Frontier?

Of all the things golf has going for it, one thing it doesn't have is an Olympic heritage. Golf was included in the half-assed 1900 Games in France (historians call them the farcical Olympics), but just barely. There was a stroke-play event with all of 12 competitors, several of whom didn't realize that it was connected to something called the Olympics. There was also a full-handicap event won by a vacationing American from St. Louis named Albert Lambert. Wealthier than he was skilled, Lambert was nonetheless so delighted with his medal that, when St. Louis was awarded the 1904 Games, he managed to get golf included. Lambert's two claims to actual fame are that his company (later Warner-Lambert) invented Listerine and that he was the main sponsor of Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight. He gave enough money to the effort that the St. Louis airport was eventually named for him. The golf on display at the St. Louis Olympics was not exactly international in scope, competed as it was by 74 Americans and three Canadians. One of the Canadians won, George Lyon.

Similarly, of all the things golf has going for it, it doesn't have much of a foothold in this year's Olympic host country, where the sport returns to competition. Brazil has roughly 200 million people, and its land mass is the fifth-largest on Earth. On such a massive canvas, there are only about 110 courses and 20,000 people who play. In Rio de Janeiro, host city and home to 6.5 million people, there are perhaps a few more than 1,000 families who belong to one of two private clubs.

People here are poor. The average annual income in Rio is approximately R$20,000 (about $6,000 in U.S. dollars). Steeply discounted memberships in Rio's two private clubs go for more than that. But it's also cultural. To understand Rio, one regular visitor said, you have to understand the beaches. This reporting trip began on what turned out to be a four-day weekend. My guide, Eduardo, had no idea what the holiday might be—his area of specialization is golf, and he had only recently resigned from Rio 2016's golf staff. Besides, he said, "Brazil has too many holidays." It turned out to be Dia de Tiradentes, which marks the hanging of an 18th-century revolutionary for advocating independence from Portugal.

In any case, walk Ipanema Beach on such a weekend. For four days and most of the nights, the entire beachfront is packed. Soccer and beach tennis are played every few yards. Watch the beach volleyball and realize what a weak facsimile the Olympic version is. These two-person sides feature rallies that last for a minute—and they're not using their hands. They tee the ball up on a mound of sand to kick it off and then use their heads, chests, knees, feet, occasionally backs or butts—to keep rallies alive. It's extraordinary. The people of Rio live for the beach. They live on the beach. Every kind of business is there on the sand—from alcoholic beverages to vendors selling corn on the cob to freaking massage. It's a complete and self-sustaining universe, and it's just as alive on the beaches of Copacabana and Barra da Tijuca and São Conrado.

Golf doesn't enter the public imagination. Most people know what it is, but it's not covered in the newspapers and it's not broadcast on television. It's nearly invisible.

And into these contexts, Gil Hanse has designed and built (with the help of his superintendent Neil Cleverly) an ambitious course intended not only to host the best in the world as they compete for gold, silver and bronze, but to become what Rio 2016 touts as the first public golf course in the country, a new beginning for golf and a bet on its future.

Off The Grid

If golf does have a future in Brazil, it might be right here, on what is actually the country's first, and for now, only public course. The Associacão Golfe Publico de Japeri is about 70 minutes by car from the Barra da Tijuca section of Rio, site of the Olympic course. And believe me when I say "by car," which is the only way to get from Rio to Japeri unless you want a three-hour trip by bus, train and foot.

But Japeri is even farther than the mileage. When Eduardo told his mother the night before where we were going, she asked us not to. Japeri, a city of about 100,000 people, is notoriously violent and is last in the state of Rio de Janeiro's human-development rankings.

On our way to Japeri, Google Maps failed us, which was particularly disconcerting because we were nearly out of gas. (Eduardo had underestimated the distance.) But then, suddenly, just a few hundred yards off a new and desolate highway, there it was: a concrete bunker with a metal roof. Baked-dirt parking lot for maybe five or six cars. Fairways burned white by the ongoing drought. The range—the left half of which doubles as the fairway for the first hole—looks like an open, arid field. Which is exactly what these hundred acres were—a farm fallen into arrears on the outskirts of town—until about 15 years ago, when Jair Medeiros, a caddie from Gavea Golf and Country Club in Rio, along with a dozen other caddies, started bringing used clubs and balls back home and knocking them around.

One day, Jair approached the mayor about turning the tract into an actual golf course. The mayor was amenable, so Jair enlisted the support of Vicky Whyte, a Gavea member who's also the first female South American member of the R&A. It was her idea to seek funding for the enterprise by making it more than a golf course, a bastion of hope in a distressed place.

Whyte, with her son Michael, applied for a grant from the R&A and secured a sponsorship from Nationwide Insurance to build a course. The sponsorship was insufficient to fund 18 holes, so Whyte commissioned Brazilian architect Ricardo Pradez to build nine. "The construction process was slow," Whyte says. "Very little earth-moving and shaping was done. We went with the lie of the land. We did, however, build two lakes for drainage and irrigation purposes. Money was always a problem."

The course opened in 2005. Jair is now in charge and employs most of those original caddies from Gavea to maintain the facility.

The golf course is modest. Well, modest is generous. There is little irrigation—only the greens get water—so the course is as hard as rock. When the new highway came through, it stole three holes. Jair and his staff, with equipment on loan from the mayor, built replacement holes with the help of Fabio Silva, the agronomist at Gavea. Michael Whyte will tell you that the course forces you to use every club in your bag—the signature hole is a winding, downhill par 4 to a natural island green. But it's by no means a gimme that, were the flagsticks removed, most people would readily identify this place as a golf course. But, given what goes on at the academy (more on that in a bit), that's almost beside the point.

In The Stadium

We're in another metal-roofed building. This time, it's the construction offices of the Olympic course, and we're talking to the only person in the world who holds the title of "Superintendent, Olympic Golf Course." It's right there, stitched on the breast of his dark-green shirt and matching cap.

This is the day before our trip to Japeri, and when Cleverly hears that we're heading there, says, "You're gonna see one extreme to another when you look at that facility, because it's still golf in some shape or form. But to transition to that from this is a huge, huge thing."

Cleverly is wiry, wired and intense. His bearing is military, which is how he spent his time before his career in golf. He's burned brown, not a natural shade for an Englishman. He was hired to take an inhospitable and inadequate piece of land (it's only about 100 acres) in a country where there is little inborn interest in the sport and, with an absolute dearth of experienced workers, help Gil Hanse build a world-class golf course. It is especially punishing to take on an Olympics during a crushing recession and only two years after hosting a World Cup. On this day, Cleverly was 104 days away from the beginning of the Games. When his course will then be trod upon by caddies and players and beat to hell by 15,000 ticket holders per day, and none of it, not one square inch of it, has ever really been tested. Well, unless you count the single rehearsal event, in which a couple dozen Brazilian pros played in front of a few hundred spectators and, even then, the roping was all screwed up and players got touchy when the crowd jostled them. One hundred and four days, and he still doesn't have enough mowers. He's also waiting for someone at the organizing committee to approve and organize the logistics to bring several dozen volunteer superintendents from around the world who are willing to pay their expenses and donate their time and labor to get the course into the pristine shape that the only course ever built for Olympic golf deserves.

It has been a challenge, and it's going to continue to be one. But when you're out on the course with Cleverly, and he shows you the green complex at No. 7, the way the rhythm of it is set up by the false front on the left side of the green, which falls gently toward the center, where it's joined by the razor edge of the bunker face, which rises to create an almost musical symmetry—his love of this course and all the pain it has caused him is right there in his eyes, even though he deflects any credit from himself and pronounces Gil Hanse "an artist."

When you ask Cleverly what this course's future is, it's a loaded question because, though he has worked on 11 other courses, this is the one by which the world will judge him. More than that, he's deeply concerned whether this course is an opportunity Brazil is capable of taking advantage of, or, like so many former Olympic facilities, it will fall into disuse. "The only answer I can give you would be the 'if' scenario," Cleverly says. "If there would be a street-level golfing commodity, I'd say that this golf course would be the most played on a regular basis. But because I feel now, having been here for the last three years, and realizing that unless things change from a street level—the price of equipment, the price of a round, the mentality of people ... from what I've learned in my time here, it's really hard for people to live normal lives in this country. So there has to be some kind of format where they can exhibit the golf course to juniors or schoolchildren. Bring them to the driving range, show them how to play golf, and if you get a percentage of those that are interested, then maybe there will be the roots of something in Brazil. It's easy to talk a good game and to say that you have some kind of a plan, but whether they step up and do it is another matter."

by David Granger, Golf Digest |  Read more:
Image: Dom Furore