RIO DE JANEIRO — Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic golf course took three years to build as the project was slowed down by environmental lawsuits, Brazilian bureaucracy and stop-and-start funding by a billionaire real estate developer.
Four months after golf’s surprising popularity at the Olympics, an even larger test remains: What to do with an acclaimed course in a country where few play the game, and in a city that can’t pay to maintain it.
“You know that it’s not going to be easy,” Paulo Pacheco, head of the Brazilian Golf Confederation, told The Associated Press. “It’s challenging. It’s not easy to do. It’s very hard. I think it’s the only opportunity we have to improve golf in Brazil.”
Everything feels unfinished around the course, except the course itself, which threatens to become a white elephant.
Billed as the first public championship-level course in the country, the layout is hidden behind several luxury apartment towers known as “Riserva Golf,” which won’t be completed until 2018. Cinderblock walls and fencing obstruct the view from the street, and no signs mark the entrance to the course in the western Rio suburb of Barra da Tijuca.
Once through the rutted parking lot and inside the clubhouse, there’s no pro shop, few furnishings, no local club professional and no restaurant. And few players.
Only four middle-age men were on the course one morning this week, though the early rain showers didn’t help. Even in good weather, attendance has been sparse in a city of 6 million that has only 1,500 golfers.
Brazil has about 20,000 players compared to 25 million in the United States, and the game is played almost exclusively by the wealthy.
Another problem: Who will pay to keep the course running? Out-going Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes says the city can’t pay. He has said repeatedly he would not have pushed to build the course were in not for the Olympics.
“It’s not a popular sport in Brazil,” Paes said last year. “But there are some things you need to do when you deliver the Olympics.”
Last week, a state court froze Paes’ assets as a public prosecutor investigates whether he improperly waived an environmental tax for the course builder. The builders’ assets were also frozen.
The state of Rio de Janeiro has declared a “financial calamity” and is several months behind in paying teachers and public employees. And the country itself is in the deepest recession in decades, with unemployment at 12 percent.
Pacheco, who has been managing the course, was vague in explaining how it will stay afloat. He said he would be leaving the job in a few weeks, and that negotiations were taking place with a new management company that could take over Jan. 1. But nothing’s been signed with just two weeks to go.
Pacheco said employees of the present management company were being “partially paid” and were still working as both sides work out a pay settlement. Some employees complained several weeks ago about not being paid.
Neil Cleverly, the Briton who helped build the layout and had been managing maintenance, is no longer working at the course since his visa expired. Pacheco said it would be six months before the course was fully operating, and estimated the cost to maintain the layout at between $75,000-100,000 monthly. World golf officials are concerned.
“As has been the case since the very beginning of this project, getting an accurate picture of the current situation on the ground, and the best parties responsible for the short- and long-term success of the Olympic Golf Course, has been difficult,” said Ty Votaw, vice president of the International Golf Federation.
Pacheco acknowledged that local golf officials have been slow in getting organized. He said a new website and Rio tourist agencies would soon be promoting the course, which will charge $80 green fees after Jan. 1 for Brazilians and foreigners.
“The IGF is worried,” he said. “It’s the legacy you have to give back to the Olympics.”
In a deal with the city, billionaire developer Pasquale Mauro spent about $20 million to build the course in exchange for permission to construct multi-million-dollar apartments on some of Rio’s most desirable real estate.
It’s not just any course. From a wetland area — formerly part of a nature reserve — American golf architect Gil Hanse carved out a links-style layout with undulating fairways that bump up against scrubland brimming with wildflowers.
Local animal life includes small alligators, nesting owls, and a large rodent called a capybara that leaves tracks through the course’s abundant bunkers. Players raved about the course during the Olympics.
“Gil did a good job taking nothing and turning it into a great golf course without having time to make any changes or adjustments,” American Rickie Fowler said. “There’s a lot of fun characteristics.”
Marcos Dias, one for four players alone on the course one day this week, said it could be a “milestone” in developing young Brazilian talent.
“There was no place to practice. Now I have everything to improve my game,” Dias said. “In the United States you have a real good scenario to develop your game. It’s like here with soccer. Wherever you go here you find a soccer field. But for golf, it’s really rare to have a course like this to play.”