Golfers have waited a long time to see their favourite game played as a part of the world’s greatest sporting festival. In the second modern Games of 1900, men and women played in a golf tournament at Compiègne, though it is said that the organisation of those Games was so bad that neither set of competitors knew they were playing an Olympic event. At St Louis in 1904, women were excluded, but a men’s team event was added – but as every player came either from the US or Canada it cannot have been the most competitive of tournaments. And that was that. For 1908, when the Olympics went to London for the first time, golf was out; perhaps bizarrely, given that the UK would have seemed a natural spot for a golf tournament. But gone it was.
The return of golf to the Games has been a decade and more in the making. It was in 2009, during an International Olympic Committee (IOC) meeting in Copenhagen that golf won its place, joining rugby sevens as a new event, on trial for the 2016 and 2020 Games. It is perhaps ironic that golf got in for the Games immediately after London 2012, which, as with 1908, would have seemed a natural fit for golf, but such is life; and when at that same IOC congress in 2009, the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro was awarded the 2016 Games, it became clear that the return of golf would not be entirely straightforward. Rio was not overburdened with golf courses, and a quick assessment of those there were soon made it clear that a new course would need to be built for the Games. A site, at Riserva do Marapendi, close to the main Olympic park, was identified fairly quickly; British architect Martin Hawtree had routed a course on that site several years earlier, but it had not been built. And, after an in-depth competition that attracted entries from golf architects from all over the world, in what was a major surprise at the time, American Gil Hanse was chosen to design the course, back in 2012.
Hanse’s stories of the build are fairly well known now in golf circles, but still quite enlightening. “When we landed in Rio in Jan 2013 to start construction, and we didn’t get going till mid March – and then only a nominal start, it was pretty depressing,” he says. “There was a lot of ‘yes, yes, that’s going to happen’ in the run up to construction. When we arrived, the yesses became ‘Oh we’ll get to that’. Not once during the competition process was it mentioned that the key decision maker was going to be the landowner. Over the first couple of months, getting the right equipment was hard, as was dealing with landowner/developer who didn’t really understand the process of golf course construction. That first nine months to a year, we were getting support from the PGA Tour technical guys and from the golf people – Richard Brogan and Michael Johnson from the PGA Tour construction and design services were down there all the time and they served as our buffer and did a great job – but we weren’t really getting any from the people on the ground. But we came through it all, that is the most important thing. The critical thing is that, while the process was difficult to navigate, and it was not efficient, never once were we asked to compromise the design. People ask me, was there ever a point where you were tempted to quit? I say no, but if anyone had asked us to change the design, we would have. No matter how difficult the process, if you deliver in the end then you can judge a project a success.”
For Gil Hanse, the story of his experiences in Rio de Janeiro is one of overcoming obstacles. The development of the Barra de Tijuca Olympic course rarely went smoothly, with disputes over land ownership, problems with environmental permissions and many other issues causing the build to take far longer than expected. But now, as the Games approaches and with the trial event successfully in the bag, albeit rather later than planned, Hanse can look back on the whole process with the satisfaction of a job well done – and, like every other keen golf fan, with an interest in seeing who will come through and win medals when competition days arrive.
“I think the key takeaway for me has been just how resilient and talented our guys are – guys like Kyle Franz, Neil Cameron, Ben Hillard and Ben Warren,” he says. “They lived there, and it was difficult for them. But the passion they brought to it on a daily basis was remarkable. It didn’t matter what obstacles we faced: the time it took, the inefficiencies in the construction process – they kept it going all through the time we were on site, and that was key to us delivering something good in the end.”
Hanse says that building the Rio course has helped to change his image within golf. “Our name recognition has gone through a dramatic transformation for sure,” he says. “Within the industry, we were a known commodity, and we had a good reputation, but outside, in the broader golf community, we were almost unknown. Now, that’s changed – we’re recognised as being among the top names of our profession.”
The architects says that he is very eager to see the world’s top players tackle his course. “The finishing stretch is memorable, but the holes I want to watch them play the most are the fourth, the ninth and the sixteenth – two short par fours and a three. The fourth is the prettiest spot on the property, probably the most dramatic looking hole on the course, while at the ninth, Kyle Franz built to concept from Fraserburgh in Scotland – two mounds in front right and left, with a cleavage between and a small green. If we get windy and firm conditions, angles will be very important throughout the golf course.”
As to the post-Olympic legacy, Hanse says he has a number of hopes. He scotches suggestions that the course will not last long before it is redeveloped for housing. “You cannot develop that land – the only land that is available for development on the site is where they already are building. It is zoned for what is there now, so we expect it to stay a golf course for the long haul,” he says. “In time, I hope there is a robust caddie programme, and a strong junior programme that has opened up golf to groups that haven’t previously played it. I hope there’s a continued championship legacy for the course, but the most important thing is contributing to the growth of golf in Brazil.”
This article first appeared in issue 45 of Golf Course Architecture.