Golf and the 2016 Olympics: Decisions made but challenges remain

Prior to our last update about the return of golf to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, much remained uncertain about the course, the designer and the actual design, however after an announcement in the first week of March 2012 by Rio 2016 president Carlos Arthur Nuzman, that has all been cleared up.

After a lengthy bidding process and despite competition that included such golfing luminaries as Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Greg Norman, it is American architect Gil Hanse who has won the rights to design and build the course that is to be the centrepiece of golf’s return to the Olympics in Rio 2016.

Hanse, in partnership with LPGA Hall of Fame legend Amy Alcott, won the bid thanks to his impressive renovation of the TPC Boston course in Massachussetts, as well as his work on Castle Stuart, host of last years weather-plagued Scottish Open. Equally important to the bidding process was Hanse decision to relocate to Rio to oversee the project, which he hopes to have the first shovel in the ground in October this year, and the fact that he intends to accentuate the natural contours and dune formations within the Reserva da Marapendi site that has been earmarked for the course to be built upon.


Speaking after accepting the role, Hanse stated:

“We want to take this opportunity to say how honoured and humbled we are to have been selected to sign the golf course for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro,

“We will strike to produce a course that will maximise the benefits of the site while creating an identity that is in keeping with the natural terrain, vegetation and wildlife indigenous to what we believe will be transformed into a ‘picturesque’ landscape which will make the people of Rio proud.”


So with Hanse hoping to have started work by October this year and a pre-Olympic practise tournament slated for 2015, it is a tough schedule for the design team to not only get the course ready in time, but also in a state befitting of the worlds best players. It’s an arduous task getting a course ready from bare scrubland into a pristine course ready to accept the best that Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and co can throw at it. in Rio - golf

Yet the new course also presents another difficult challenge for Hanse. While the course has to be challenging enough to test the very best golfers in the world, it also has to have a benign side.
Part of the remit for reintroducing golf to the Olympics in 2016 was that the sport was to leave an indelible legacy behind; bringing the game to the people of Brazil and Rio and perhaps inspiring a generation of Brazilian golfers to follow the sport. Also part of that remit was that the final design was not going to be a private club, but a publicly owned one, meaning that any Brazilian, of any ability, can pitch up with a set of clubs and play on what was the course that hosted the 2016 Olympic Games.

Within that, is a huge design challenge. Making a course that is tough enough for the worlds best, but easiest enough for complete novices is no easy task.
Compromise has to be found between monster 600 yard holes that only the top professionals can reach in two shots, and holes that novices can play. Of course, having different tee boxes will help, but the problems are really to be found when it comes to issues such as placing hazards, notably water hazards and bunkers, and also in the shape and contours of the greens.


The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Brazil is not a typical golfing epicenter. Hanse cannot even bank on there being a large number of incumbent golfers already in the population ready and able to play the course with little modification. There are just 30,000 golfers in the whole of Brazil, and around 100 courses. This in a country that is the 5th largest in the world, with just short of 200 million people living in it. By comparison, the UK has 4 million golfers and around 3,000 courses. The United States of America has around 17,000 courses and upwards of 20 million golfers.

There are ten times more courses in the state of Florida alone, than there are in the whole of Brazil

Optimists may speculate that this gives golf the chance for immense growth in Brazil and while this is certainly possible, there are immense social problems to overcome if this is the case. Firstly, the fact that many Brazilians live in abject poverty means that golf is a sport that they cannot afford to play, secondly the nation is fanatical about soccer to the point where almost every other sport is rendered meaningless and lastly, golf is seen very much as an elitist sport in Brazil and under those terms, it is hard to see how a single public course, even with Olympic backing, can make Brazil a viable golfing market.

Celebrities are definitely finding their way to relax on their trips: here’s a video of Justin Beiber playing golf in SP Brazil.


Certainly, Brazil has the land, money and ability to become a new major golfing market, but is the desire there? Is the social situation right for mass-market appeal? Sadly, too many Brazilians cannot afford to take up golf and until this changes, it is always likely to be an elitist sport in the country.
Part of the Olympic remit should be to bring golf to the masses by whatever means, educational programs, open days, free training and whatnot. Whether the finances or willingness is there to do that remains to be seen.

Given all these problems behind golf’s return to the Olympics it does raise one crucial question; why bring golf back at a venue that has little interest, facilities, equipment or history in the game, when just four years beforehand, you had the chance to bring golf back to the Olympics at a venue that everyone across the globe recognises as the spiritual home of golf?
Would not a return at St. Andrews in 2012 been more fitting for both golf and the Olympics?


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