This story first appeared in the March 2010 issue of GOLF Magazine.
Brazil is an impoverished nation where golf is a pursuit almost exclusively of the rich. The exception sits in a rolling pasture an hour west of Rio de Janeiro, where a pack of persistent caddies overcame impossible odds to build the country’s first and only municipal course. Their next challenge? Keeping it open.
The first time Jair Medeiros played golf in his hometown, his driver was a tree branch, his target was a soup can and the most dangerous hazard was a rancher with a gun. It was 1993, and Medeiros lived in Japeri, Brazil, a small, forsaken exurb in a poverty-ridden country that had largely escaped golf’s global reach. Despite a population of more than 185 million and more land than the continental United States, Brazil had failed to build a single public course. The game was the domain of the rarefied rich, who played at fortress-like retreats such as the private club in Rio de Janeiro where Medeiros caddied six days a week.
When he started hauling bags, Medeiros was 19 and golf seemed as foreign to him as the wealthy expats whose clubs he carried. But the game grew on him. Long before he had a handicap, he was hooked. “You hit one shot, you know?” Medeiros says. “I don’t care who you are or how much money you make, you hit one shot and that’s all it takes.”
One rare day off, without money, a club membership or equipment to play with, Medeiros carved a tree branch into a makeshift driver and snatched a foosball from a local bar. A few friends followed as Medeiros made for the outskirts of Japeri and scrambled under a barbed wire fence. The land was private pasture. Cows blinked dumbly as Medeiros teed the foosball on a pen cap and fired a shot toward the flag he’d fashioned: a plastic bag tethered to a bamboo pole, planted in a can buried in the ground. His friends applauded, but not everyone was pleased. “Next thing you know, a rancher comes running toward us, waving a shotgun,” Medeiros says.
He and his friends fled, but returned the next week, only to be chased off at gunpoint again. “We only played two holes,” Medeiros says, “but we’d gotten a taste.” As the sun set that evening, he gazed through the barbed wire at the sleepy folds of pasture, private property that was destined to become one of the world’s most improbable golf courses.
The first time Carlos de Morais saw someone swing a golf club, he was driving toward his office in Japeri, where the people had elected him mayor. It was 1994, and the road on which he was driving would not have been mistaken for Magnolia Lane. Its sidewalks were shadeless and its asphalt uneven. The tin-roofed homes that lined it were less houses than hovels, and many of them lacked running water and lights. Soccer was the only sport of note in Japeri. Children dribbled balls along the gutter, mimicking the moves of their favorite players. Street vendors hawked the green and yellow jerseys of the country’s beloved World Cup squad.
At the edge of town, the mayor stopped to watch an unusual event: on a field dotted with cattle, young men were beating balls with a crooked wooden stick. “I yelled out to them, ‘What the heck is this?’ ” de Morais says.
The young men told their story and the mayor liked what he heard, so much so that he gave official sanction to their competition: the Japeri Cup became a city-sponsored tournament, with free soft drinks and a trophy as first prize.
An accord was reached with the cattle rancher: he wouldn’t shoot the players if they didn’t hack up too much turf or harm his cows. Over time, the Cup became a local curiosity. Throngs of townsfolk would crawl under the barbed wire, take seats on a hilltop and watch a crude version of a game whose rules they didn’t understand. The field, which once consisted of Jair Medeiros and a small handful of friends, grew to a few dozen. Caddies from the far-flung slums of Rio made their way to Japeri to compete.
The three-hole course they played wasn’t a course in any real sense. Before the matches, participants spent hours clearing cow manure from the knee-high native grasses that they called fairways. Before they hit their drives, players received guidance such as: “Try to take this one between the vulture and the steer.” Once, an approach shot knocked a calf unconscious, but the animal survived and the player salvaged bogey.
“It was wonderful,” says de Morais, the mayor. “You had kids coming out in the green, open spaces, not doing drugs, not committing crimes and getting a broader view of the world. I told them that if I could, I’d build them a golf course right then and there. Hell, I would have liked to build them 10.”
The first time Vicky Whyte heard about the Japeri Cup, she was strolling the plush fairways of her home course, and Medeiros was carrying her bag. It was the summer of 2000, and the sun beamed brightly onto Gavea Golf and Country Club, a private retreat in Rio that draws into focus the stark inequities that pervade Brazil. Set in the shadow of Rio’s coastal mountains, the course overlooks the city’s glamorous beaches but is flanked on three sides by the country’s largest slum.
Armed guards watch over Gavea’s gated entrance. Others stand sentinel on the seventh fairway, where ramshackle homes butt up against a fence that separates the course from the poverty beyond. Memberships to Gavea cost $80,000, a fortune in Brazil, but the bloodlines the club looks for aren’t for sale. When Ronaldo, the Brazilian soccer superstar, tried to join, his application reportedly was denied.
Whyte, vice president of the Brazilian Golf Confederation, knew her way around golf’s rarefied circles. Her paternal grandfather had been a founding member of Gavea. She also knew Medeiros and could tell that her caddie had something on his mind. “He started talking to me about this tournament they held and this dream he had, and he wanted to know if I could help,” Whyte says.
The idea sounded sweet, but it also struck her as a sure path to frustration: trying to help a group of landless caddies build a golf course in their small, foresaken town.
The first time de Morais was re-elected as mayor of Japeri, he came into office with a promise unfulfilled. It was 2001, seven years since he’d told a group of young men that their town deserved a golf course.
Now he had a renewed mandate and some money in his coffers. For $100,000, he bought 170 acres from the cattle rancher. Then he drew up papers so the town could lease the land to the young men for free. Whyte contacted Ricardo Pradez, an architect who’d worked with Pete Dye’s son, Perry. Pradez surveyed the site, decided it had promise, and drafted a nine-hole design for a reduced fee.
There was land and there were plans. But there wasn’t money for the heavy lifting. The dirty work would have to fall to volunteers. “We were young and healthy, and we loved golf,” Medeiros says. “But we had no idea what we were in for.”
Two days a week over the next six years, Medeiros and 10 other fellow caddies headed for the pasture, armed with shovels, pick-axes, scythes and hoes. They bushwacked through brush and hacked through native grasses. They cleared tropical trees and filled swampy land with wagonloads of soil. They did their work by hand, in a grinding ritual that moved so slowly that the caddies saw no progress from one month to the next.
Only year by year could they recognize the impact of their unpaid efforts: here, the doglegged outline of the par-5 first hole; there, a pond—created as the caddies unearthed ground water—that someday would guard the seventh green.
Then, one afternoon, more than a decade after Medeiros first teed up a foosball and whacked it with a tree branch, the caddies set aside their tools and hung a sign that marked the entrance to their club, Brazil’s first and only municipal course. “I had to pinch myself,” Medeiros says. “It was like a dream.”
The first time Anderson Nunes stepped onto the tee of his hometown course, he was 9 years old and his driver came up to his chin.
It was 2007, and Nunes lived in Japeri in a ramshackle dwelling with a dirt floor. His mother, who earned her living as a maid, left by train for Rio every morning before sunrise. Nunes’s father wasn’t in the picture. His teenage sister looked after him. “If it weren’t for golf, who knows what I’d be doing?” Nunes says.
Right from the beginning, Nunes showed a knack for the game. He had a rhythmic backswing and a fluid finish. Within a year, Whyte was bringing him to tournaments in Argentina. Within two years, he was the top-ranked player in his age group in Brazil.
Around Japeri, golf soon gave rise to inspiring stories. Whyte had managed to round up corporate backers, whose contributions paid for a youth golf program that gave 100 children from impoverished families free lunch and golf instruction every week. Medeiros and the caddies who’d helped build the course were hired to run the program. To remain enrolled, children had to show that they were staying in school. Davison Pereira Rosa, a 10-year-old boy who lived in a stone shack and shared the same bed with three of his brothers, was not atypical of the students. He got so hooked on golf that he built a makeshift par-3 outside his family’s humble hillside dwelling, and practiced with a broomstick and a ping-pong ball.
Golf seeped into the local culture. On streets where soccer ruled, World Cup jerseys made room for collared shirts. On a concrete wall once covered with nonsensical graffiti, someone spray-painted the image of a golf club-wielding Sylvester the Cat. Tiger Woods joined Ronaldo in the ranks of local role models. In the town square, toddlers could be seen whacking pebbles with putters, pacifiers pulsing in their mouths.
In 2008, Anderson Nunes won a national competition that earned him a dream trip: a weeklong stint at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Florida. His story became the center of a short film that spotlighted how golf had changed his life. This past spring, on a trip to Scotland, Whyte screened the film at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. Though the R&A was donating money to the Japeri project, its members had never seen the youth program in action. That afternoon, sitting in their tweedy clubhouse in the home of golf, a group of R&A members watched the images and wept.
The first time Jair Medeiros heard about the highway project, he cupped his face into his hands. It was 2009, and he’d shown up early for work at Japeri Golf Club. Squinting into the distance, he saw a government employee painting orange chalk lines on the 8th fairway, marking the path where a highway would soon run. The highway had been in the works for decades, but now the government was rushing to complete it before 2014, when Brazil would host the soccer World Cup.
Under the original plans, the highway would have run nowhere near the course. But those blueprints had changed. According to news reports, a group of wealthy landowners had pushed for a rerouting of the highway, steering it away from their properties. Under the new plans, the highway would cut straight through the Japeri Golf Club, eliminating four of its nine holes. “In Brazil, rich people do what they want,” Medeiros says. “But poor people don’t have a voice.”
As word of the highway spread, protests began to rise around Japeri. People carried signs reading, “Save Our Golf Course.” Whyte pledged to fight the highway. Maria Lucia Barcellos, one of Whyte’s fellow members at Gavea Golf and Country Club, swore that she’d sit in vigil to prevent the road’s construction. “That wouldn’t make the government look very good, would it?” Barcellos said. “An old lady getting plowed over by bulldozers.”
Government officials tried to settle tensions. They told reporters that the highway would move forward but that Japeri’s golfers would receive compensation: a new course would be built in a different location. That was small consolation for Medeiros. “The government promises lots of things that rarely happen,” he says.
It was a bright, sunny afternoon, and Medeiros was watching a young foursome wrap up their round, putting on a ninth green that will vanish when construction of the highway begins later this year. “This course has been a dream of ours for more than a decade,” he said. “But if we have to, we’ll start from scratch.”