2016 Rio Olympic Golf Course on Track, But It’s Going to be Tight

March 16, 2015


Early last year, as posted on the website of the Back 9 Network (the Golf Lifestyle Network), CNN correspondent Shane O’Donoghue reported on the progress being made in the construction of the golf course being built for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, to be grassed largely with Zeon Zoysia. O’Donoghue interviewed Gil Hanse, architect for the golf course, and traveled the city and (by helicopter) over the site of the course.

To read the reporter’s story, as well as view a video, complete with gorgeous footage of Rio and commentary from local insiders who have followed the trials and tribulations of course’s construction from the beginning, click here.

Below is a transcript of O’Donoghue’s first video posted in the report.


O’Donoghue’s first interview with Gil Hanse, architect for the Rio 2016 Olympic Golf Course

With all eyes on 2016, Rio decided to build a new golf course to host the Olympic tournament. And, how are they getting on? Well, there’s only one way to find out.

We are now in Rio, in the area of Barra de Tijuca, and over that fence is where the golf course is being built for the Olympics. But due to local politics, we’re not allowed to visit. So, there really is now only one way to check out how things are progressing [by a helicopter fly-over].

From the outset, the project suffered much-publicized delays over who owned the land. But, from the air, it’s clear just how much work has now been done. Twelve holes and sixteen greens complexes are now completely shaped. There is, however, no sign as yet of any grass. The highly respected Gil Hanse beat off most of the other top golf architects in the world to land the job with Rio 2016. Up the road, at Gavea Golf Club, he can’t hide his frustration at being slowed down by disputes between the Olympic organizers and the owners of the land.

“The way it’s gone, is really, I don’t think, the way it was depicted to any of the eight of us who were initially vying for the position,” Hanse says. “None of us were led to understand how actively involved the land owners would be in the process and how sometimes the decision-making processes have not gone the way that we would have liked to have seen them go. So, yeah, from that standpoint, it’s been a little more difficult than we had thought.”

Hanse is still waiting for the irrigation equipment to arrive. If it gets here soon, the timetable looks like this. [Text on screen: March 2014 — start laying grass. June 2015 — course opens. August 2015 — test event.] They’ll grass each hole as soon as it’s finished. But, even so, it’s going to be tight to get the course open for the scheduled test event next year.

“I feel good right now that we’re going to hit that,” says Hanse, “but if you talk to me in two months from now and if we haven’t started with the irrigation and if we don’t have some of the other issues settled on site, then my tone might be a little bit more pessimistic.”

At the course’s shiny new bus stop, we met the Rio journalist Luiz Magalhaes. He has followed the at times tortuous story from the beginning. He’s now pretty confident that the golf course will be ready for the Olympics. Getting people there might be another matter.

“I think it’s possible to finish by 2015 because I believe that the problem is not here but with the infrastructure projects,” says Magalhaes. “The first problem, to me, is to finish the new subway line because you have a lot of things to do until then. You need to finish seven stations.”

A short walk away, we find the man who runs golf in Brazil. It’s a minority sport here, with only around 25,000 registered players and virtually no public golf courses.

Says Paulo Pacheco, president of the Brazilian Golf Confederation, “Maybe God plays golf because it’s very important for us because it would help us a lot. We can change the mind of people in Brazil about golf. It’s a great opportunity; it’s a gift from God to have the Games in Rio de Janeiro and to have golf back in the Olympic Games. It’s amazing. Now, it’s in our hands. We will have to work hard to show the world that Brazil can do the best.”

As part of the Olympic legacy, there will be a high-performance academy on site, and the course will be open to the public for 20 years. So, what can they and we expect to see in 2016?

The man behind it says to think Melbourne Sandbelt and Augusta. Says Hanse, “It will have a very links-like playing characteristic. We’re excited about that because not only from a presentation standpoint but from a play standpoint, we’re trying to get the ground game to be an important part of playing this golf course.”

“Now, you’ve allocated for a men’s tournament to a women’s tournament, but beyond that, it’s got to be playable. It’s going to be open, a public course,” O’Donoghue comments. “There are a lot of challenges there.”

“Yeah,” Hanse agrees. “From a golf architect’s standpoint, that’s always the most difficult challenge. You know, I think Augusta National is the perfect example of how you set up a golf course for both of those goals. You have a wide golf course off of the tee, but to score at Augusta, you have to stand on the tee and really look at half of the fairway. Because, to get the proper angle into the green, you need to come from either the left or the right, depending on the hole location. And then to further expand on that, to score at Augusta, you have to hit the proper quarter of the green.”

He continues, “And then what we wanted to do at the finish was to set up something really exciting, with the potential for a lot of things to happen. In our minds, if somebody could finish eagle/birdie/eagle, that would be the greatest thing in the world. We’ve said this before, but all we’re doing is setting the stage. At the end of the day, the story should be all about the performers, the athletes who play out there. And if we can create a stage where those guys and gals at the end of the day can put up some great numbers and get some excitement and think that the leader board can change dramatically at the end, I think that’s great theater for golf.”

And he won’t be the only one hoping those performances inspire future generations throughout South America and far beyond.

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