Road jeopardizing Brazil’s only public golf course

SAO PAULO (AP) — The president of Brazil’s only public golf course is threatening to “lay down kids” in the middle of the fairways to keep government bulldozers from entering the property, constructing a new highway and destroying the course.

As Rio de Janeiro prepares to host the first Olympic golf tournament in more than 100 years, the modest Japeri Golfe Clube – known for social projects that help hundreds of poor children – is in danger of being shut down because of the highway the government says is needed to alleviate traffic in the Rio metropolitan area.

“I’ll lay down kids in the middle of the fairway if needed,” golf course president Vicky Whyte told The Associated Press this week, vowing to protect the course until the end.

The city of Japeri is last in the state’s human development rankings, and the golf school at the course helps more than 100 poor kids – aged 7 to 17 – by providing them with education, food and clothing, along with golf classes. Two times a week they spend half a day at the association and have free access to varied classes and activities. Whyte said there were some 40 kids on a waiting list to participate in the project.

She said the school was key for the future of Brazil’s golf, and that many of the kids who have been with the association are now appearing in Brazil’s junior rankings, becoming players that may end up representing the country when the Olympics finally arrive in 2016.

Whyte will meet with authorities Tuesday to try to solve the issue, but she said she was not optimistic about saving the nine-hole golf course. The land where the course is located has been declared a place of “public interest” – giving the state the right to take over the property to build the highway. She said the state even paid reparations to the city of Japeri, where the club is located some 30 miles from Rio de Janeiro.

Whyte said the Japeri Public Golf Association made a deal with the city through a bidding process in 2002 that secured its use of the land for 25 years, with an option to extend the agreement for another 25. The course opened to the public in 2005.

“It seems city officials betrayed us,” Whyte said. “They should have talked to us to try to re-negotiate the deal.”

City officials said they couldn’t do anything to stop the state from taking over the land. The city’s press office said in a statement that the current administration would do everything possible to keep the golf course running.

But if nothing can be done to keep the state from destroying the course, Whyte said she wanted authorities to build another course on an adjacent piece of land or pay for the new course to be built.

She said Rio de Janeiro state Governor Sergio Cabral personally promised the course would be rebuilt. The state’s press office didn’t respond to AP requests for comment.

Whyte said she was ready to take legal action against the city for breaking the land deal and for not forwarding the reparation money to the association.

The planned highway will link five major roads that go through the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro, and officials say it is key to improving congested traffic in the region. Six of the course’s nine holes would be destroyed if the highway was built.

Whyte said she would try to keep the social projects that work with poor youth, but it would be hard to keep funding it properly with only three holes and a driving range.

“We will take a very serious hit,” said Whyte, who has American parents but was born in Rio. “We won’t end the project overnight, but without the green fee money, it will be hard to pay salaries and keep it going.”

Golf hasn’t been a part of the Olympics since the 1904 games in St. Louis. It was voted back into the Games in 2009, and Brazil and the International Golf Federation have been discussing where the course will be built. The event will likely take place on another public course to be constructed in the region where the rest of the games will be played.

Though golf has grown in popularity in Brazil, it remains an elite sport with fewer than 30,000 participants and just over 100 courses, all private and most with high green fees for the public. The Japeri course charges just over $10 for 18 holes on weekdays. Weekend prices are about $30. Japeri city residents can play for free on Mondays and for about $3 the other days.

Officials want to use the Olympic public course to help boost the sport locally and develop it after the games are gone. Beside the course, organizers also want to build training academies and schools to develop golf professionals.

Brazil currently has only one player on the PGA Tour, Alexandre Rocha.