Return at Rio

The 19th

After more than a century, golf finally makes a return to the world’s most decorated sporting event.

BY John Gibb

“At the Rio Games, 60 countries will compete in a 72-hole stroke play contest on a course designed by the Americans Gil Hanse and Amy Alcott, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.”


“Paul McGinley, for one, is keen to travel down several times to play it so he can brief his team when they are chosen. There have been predictable problems over the legal ownership of the land, and in January this year, over the progress of the grass seeding as well. Hanse, however, is happy that everything is on schedule.”


“Golfers on the podium with the national flag and the national anthem would be a powerful symbol.”




It is a 111 years since the gold medal for the best golfer in the world was competed for in the Olympics. The Games were held in St Louis, Missouri, and there were 77 competitors. The winner was the Canadian, George Seymour Lyon and the year 1904, the one and only time they have played golf in the Olympics. Since those early days, the sport has flourished and expanded out of Europe and America into Asia. Today, US National Golf Federation figures show that there are 35,115 courses throughout the world for us to play on.


Most of those involved in the sport agree that interest in golf was on the wane for a while, particularly in the US and the sport still needs to generate more active participation. One of the ways to stimulate the popularity of the game would be an inspirational event which will catch the world’s imagination and attract more young men and women onto the golf course.


Golf has a history in the Olympics, albeit a short one, and the good news is that it’s back in the Games. The Olympics occupy a unique position in sport. It is more than a tournament. It is an inspirational celebration of sportsmanship and athleticism where professionals take part as amateurs. An Olympic champion is an heroic man or woman who, having beaten the greatest in the world, is awarded simply with a gold medal presented on the top of the podium while they raise the flag of his or her home country and play their national anthem.


That is why Brazil has done all she can to attract the games and the great and the good in the game of golf have worked together and done all they can to have golf included in the Summer Games of 2016 – and succeeded. Olympic golf will be played in Rio on a brand new course on the edge of the city. In 2009, George O’Grady, chief executive of the European Tour formally confirmed that the IOC had agreed to bring the sport back to the Games. In spite of an occasional blip, golf remains one of the most popular sports in the world and so deserves the justice done to its return at Rio, and then later in Tokyo (2020) as well.


At the Rio Games, 60 countries will compete in a 72-hole stroke play contest on a course designed by the Americans Gil Hanse and Amy Alcott, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Amy was commissioned to provide her woman golfer’s perspective to the course design. The prizes will be the same as every other Olympic sport; gold, silver or bronze medals for the first three plus the honour of taking part. The Olympics will be a big deal for both men and women golfers and the players will know how much it matters because, while there’s no prize money, the world’s greatest players will be taking part.


Most of the competitors will be professional, will rarely play golf for nothing and will have spent most of their careers earning a lucrative living on tour and collecting titles which enable them to supplement their livings with sponsorships fees. But Olympic golf is open to amateurs as well and many, including the Brazilian team players, Luiz Jacintho and Andre Tourinho, who are expected to qualify, are amateurs and will have as much of a chance of selection as anyone else.


You can’t be selected for the Olympics on past glories. You have to earn your place through current form. Every Olympic golfer will win his or her invitation to Rio as the result of where they are in the world rankings. It’s got nothing to do with what happened two years ago when you won the Open or The Masters. The ratings are worked out by the International Golf Federation. By July 2016 the field will have been refined down to the best in the world. There will be 60 men and 60 women golfers all with a key to their own rooms in the Olympic Village in Rio. They’ll be there on current form and like all the rest, they will be there to win.


Each team will consist of four players and yet they will not be teams in the generally accepted meaning of the word. For instance, although Olympic golf resembles the Ryder Cup in so far as the winners will be playing for their country, everyone competes as individuals so three males and three female players will win medals. The six winning golfers will have been competing against the other 118 men and women invited to Rio.


The non-playing team leaders will be selected by their respective professional associations. They’ve already started to appear; Paul McGinley for the Irish Republic, Jamie Spence for Great Britain and Ian Baker Finch for Australia. There is a pregnant silence from the Americans.


The course doesn’t exist yet as it is still being built. They have laid out 15 holes so far and completion day is expected to be in November, 10 months before the Games start. They will hold one event there before the Olympics - a small tournament in December 2015 to iron out any bugs in the system. Gil Hanse had to beat off some hot competition, including Jack Nicklaus, to get the job. The course is currently being laid out in the Barra da Tijuca at the Riserva de Marapendi, a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, about five miles from the Olympic Village.


Paul McGinley, for one, is keen to travel down several times to play it so he can brief his team when they are chosen. There have been predictable problems over the legal ownership of the land, and in January this year, over the progress of the grass seeding as well. Hanse, however, is happy that everything is on schedule.


Selected as designer in 2009 soon after the announcement of golf’s re-entry into the Games, Hanse’s concept is to retain the natural character and colour of the land without disrupting the environment. He believes that course design is all about the golfers playing there and that his courses are the stages on which dramas are played out. Come next year, dramas on the course are what we can expect to see in this unique format that golf has not seen in a long while.


To further this end, Gil Hanse has already moved down to Rio from his base in Malvern, Pennsylvania and he’ll stay there tending the course until after it is complete and ready to play. He says he’ll remain on site until the matches are finished and the medals have been presented. The course at Riserva de Marapendi has been a big commitment for him and by the time it is over and the players are finally competing in the Olympics, it will have accounted for seven years of his life.


His attention to detail is extraordinary and he personally finishes much of the sculpture of the greens and bunkers in his designs. “I’ve got the callouses to prove it,” he said, showing us the hands that shaped the spectacular renovation of the Blue Monster at Doral near Miami. Hanse has many elegant links courses to his name, including the beautiful Castle Stuart at Balnaglack at Inverness on the eastern coast of Scotland, and the Los Angeles Country Club.


The land to which he was given to work on at Bara de Tijuca had been degraded by sand mining and the landscape was predominantly dunes which over the years had been mined and excavated for construction work and was then abandoned. It is no more than a few yards from the Atlantic Ocean just down the coast from Copacabana. Originally, of course, it was rain forest, although it has been a long time since Sting or Paul McCartney would have considered trying to protect it. The only environmental drawback to the Riserva de Marapendi is the alarming presence of the spectacled Caiman (Caiman Crocodilus) a carnivorous reptile found all over Central America. There are around 6,000 of these beasts resident in the area and they may well be attracted to the lakes and streams of clear clean water on the course.


There were worries expressed that they might also be tempted by the occasional golfer but Anthony Scanlon, executive director of the International Golf Federation dismisses the risk of Caiman attacks on players and spectators as “minor.” He also told me that there is a strategy in place which will minimise any risk, although we are not sure what this strategy may be. The Caiman is a threatened species in Brazil where some are farmed for their skins and some are netted and taken as pets if you can believe it. There is no question of shooting them in the wild and even trapping them and moving them elsewhere would be frowned up by the local environmental groups, including Greenpeace, which have all been keeping an eye on the goings on at the site.


Moving towards a more relatable subject, we ask Gil Hanse about the course and he says that it will be a par 71 at 7,352 yards, although the length may change slightly. He says the Olympic project presents an unusual challenge because it had to be designed for both elite and amateur players.


Turf growing for the course has been organised locally by “Green Grass Sod Farms” and the grass they have selected is the environmentally respectable and drought tolerant “Zeon Zoysia,” which will be used for the rough, fairways and tees. Zeon Zoysia was developed by Bladerunner Farms at their Zoysiagrass research Headquarters at Poteet in Texas. Green Grass is the first sod farm to supply big rolls of the grass in South America. Zoysia is a turf grass which is ideal for landscaping because the turf is delivered to the site in rolls and simply unfurled in long strips onto the pre-prepared landscape of the course. In the case of the Olympic course, the greens are to be seeded with Seadwarf Seashore Paspalum and the planting of the turf onto the course started in May 2014. It will take at least one growing season to become fully established onto the layout.


One of the principle reasons the Olympic Committee selected Brazil as the golfing venue for the 2016 Games is that the game needs support in South America and there is potential in Brazil which although is traditionally a country obsessed with football, it is also mad about sport of all sorts. The government is keen to encourage children to take up golf and believes that the Olympics will inspire new players into the game. The Olympic course will be handed over to public ownership after the Games in the belief that Brazil will become a centre for golf tourism as well as a leader in the sport in South America.


There are 110 courses in Brazil. Many of them dates back to the start of the 20th century when the British and Americans were driving the railroad system south through Central America and down to the south Atlantic. Currently, there are less than 30,000 golfers in a population of 200 million. The Scottish and English were involved in building the railroad systems all over the world and the engineers and builders would develop their own courses in the countryside so that they could play golf in their spare time. The Sao Paolo Golf Club, for instance, was built by railway engineers and updated by Stanley Thompson and Robert Trent Jones, and Gavea on the edge of the Tujica Forest close to where the new Olympic course will be. It was built in 1926 by Morgan Davidson an Englishman from Peterhead, and Robert Trent Jones who continued to work in Brazil for many years.


A delegation of International Golf Federation members flew to Rio in the last week of January to look at the progress of the Olympic course. Peter Dawson, President of the IGF and CEO if the R&A and largely responsible for persuading the IOC to return golf to the Olympics, confirmed that growth on the landscape is satisfactory. He said that the impetus for including golf had come from small countries, keen to develop golf as a sport, who had approached the IGF and the Royal and Ancient.


“They wanted an international sporting event which they could take part in because their involvement in the Olympics would help the game to flourish in their countries. Golfers on the podium with the national flag and the national anthem would be a powerful symbol.

Peter Dawson has worked hard to have golf returned to the Games. His four ambassadors, namely Suzann Pettersen, Padraig Harrington, Michelle Wie and Matteo Manassero all promoted the idea and the R&A and the USPGA were able to persuade the organisers to bring the game back in both 2016 and 2020.


The budget for Rio is 7 billion Brazilian Real (£1.8 billion) so we ask Dawson who was financing it. “It’s going to be privately funded,” he said, “from sponsorship, ticket sales and a contribution from the IOC.”  It certainly won’t be cheap and has already increased by 27 percent because of the introduction of four new sports including Golf and Rugby sevens. Any shortfall would be paid for by the Brazillian Government.