A year ago, Gil Hanse shocked the world by winning the most coveted course design job since Bobby Jones tapped Alister MacKenzie to create Augusta National in 1931. Hanse, along with associate Jim Wagner and consultant Amy Alcott, beat out the likes of Jack Nicklaus/Annika Sorenstam and Greg Norman/Lorena Ochoa to earn the right to build a course for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, where golf will make its return as a medal sport after a 112-year hiatus.
Twelve months later? The elation has turned to annoyance.
A land dispute bubbled up last April, concerning just who owns the property that will house the course. Construction was slated to begin last October, but the matter is still working its way through the Brazilian courts -- much to Hanse's chagrin. In an interview on the Golf Channel last week, Hanse expressed his disappointment.
"We're right up against the deadline," said Hanse, meaning the window is closing on the time it will take to finalize the permitting, clear the land, shape the dirt, grow the grass and test the course. Hanse expressed his dismay over the process and the bureaucracy itself, saying, "Gosh, it's the Olympics, they've got to be able to move this through. And unfortunately, I was dead wrong with that." He had planned to be in Rio full-time in October to start construction, but now, "we've lost six months of my undivided attention."
Equally concerned is Anthony Scanlon, executive director of the International Golf Federation, under whose auspices the Olympic golf event is conducted on behalf of the International Olympic Committee. "There is now very little time available to construct and condition a championship standard golf course," Scanlon told AroundtheRings.com in February.
Certainly it's troubling that Hanse & Co. haven't moved a teaspoon of dirt, but let's not hit the panic button just yet. Yes, organizers, players and the architect want things to be perfect for sport's ultimate party, but I'll never understand this obsession we have with perfect conditions. From day one, golf was a game that embraced the natural terrain, played on linksland where quirk and imperfections are actually preferred traits. Hanse told me in 2012 that his design will be intended to play with links-style characteristics, such as firm and fast fairways, closely mown chipping areas around the greens and exposed sand throughout. The intent is more Australian Sandbelt, not American parkland. Lucky bounces will be an integral part of the Rio course. So we needn't fret if conditions aren't perfect.
It's not as if a flawless layout is a requirement of a great event. Riviera had a grass issue for the 1995 PGA Championship, leaving its greens mushy and inconsistent. Somehow, Ernie Els roared to a three-shot lead with a score of 197 after three rounds, then watched helplessly as Colin Montgomerie and Steve Elkington blew by him, with Elk's 64 giving him the momentum to beat Monty in a playoff.
At the 1963 U.S. Open, high winds made the ice-damaged greens at The Country Club play impossibly tough, and a late-arriving spring didn't do the rest of the course any favors. Three men made the U.S. Open playoff with 293 (+9) totals, two of whom were among the game's greats: Arnold Palmer and the eventual winner Julius Boros. Truly great players can cope with less than ideal conditions -- it's part of what makes them great.
Finally, I understand that "test events" are important, as much for the facilities and the logistics as for the course itself. Let's not forget, though, how the 1991 Ryder Cup turned out. Pete Dye first learned in August 1988 that his yet-to-be-built Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort had been selected to host the event. Hurricane Hugo trashed all of Dye's progress in October 1989. They didn't plant grass until July 1990, and in the months before the "War by the Shore," U.S. team member Lanny Wadkins paid a visit and remarked, "No way will this course be ready for the Ryder Cup."
Lanny was wrong. The Ocean Course at Kiawah was ready. No test events were needed. And that Ryder Cup wound up as one of the most memorable tournaments ever. I don't blame Hanse for his apprehension. "They're standing still," he said. "It's been very frustrating." But if we let the Ocean Course serve as a history lesson for patriotic golf team events, the Rio course has nothing to worry about -- at least until 2014.