PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club


Fighting Olympic Delays in Rio

December 18, 2013

Olympic Golf Site / Rio De Janeiro

Imagine a painter who can only pencil in his vision but is prevented from applying paints to a canvas. That's the state of the Olympic golf course in Rio de Janeiro fewer than 1,000 days before golf returns to the Games for the first time in more than a century.

Take your pick for the reasons the project lags a year behind—ownership squabbles, financing questions, lawyers, logistics, cultural differences—we only want to know if the course will be any good. And in architect Gil Hanse's mind, that hurdle has been cleared.

"We're excited about what's already in the ground but just need to get it finished," Hanse said after a recent trip to Rio.

Hanse, 50, does not regret bidding for the job even as course ownership meddles. Because the city of Rio and landowner Tanedo Group have most control over the project, the International Olympic Committee can apply only limited pressure.

"It was not represented to any of the architects who bid on this how involved the landowners would be," Hanse says. "It's turned out that the landowners are dictating the pace, process and everything with the project, and it's why we're at where we are now."

Which is behind—but within the window to complete the course in time for a possible August 2015 "test event" one year before the Games, as expected by the IOC.

The languid pacing afforded Hanse the opportunity to study his canvas in person for more than 150 days in 2013, an almost unprecedented amount of architect site time. Now that all 18 of the holes have been rough-shaped in some form, Hanse and his crew need water from an irrigation system to begin the vital phase of fine-tuning.

What was thought to be a nice site has, after the removal of shrubbery and the creation of two lakes, turned out to have world-class potential thanks to both big and subtle ground features. Ty Votaw, executive vice president of the PGA Tour and VP of the International Golf Federation, has seen the property before and after vegetation was removed.

"I was struck by all of the elevation changes hidden by the ground cover, and to see how the holes are configured with the prevailing winds," Votaw says. "It has the potential to be something special."

The higher ground features spectacular dunes at the short par-4 16th followed by a par 3 and a reachable par 5. The lower area includes the two large lakes and two holes along the Marapendi lagoon separating the site from the Atlantic Ocean.

Hanse is pleased with how the wind "blows all the time" at the site. "Wind is really going to be a factor on the course," he says, "especially at the time of year the Olympics are played."

Assuming things move forward at a normal clip, Hanse and his team should be grassing the design this fall. Yet Hanse can work only so many miracles, and as Votaw says, the project is in the midst of a critical 90-day phase in which the slightest hiccup could derail what has been a well-intended vision to build an environmentally sustainable, enjoyable-to-play public course.

As for Hanse the artist, the time has arrived for the part he loves most: the fine-tuning and crafting that make or break how a design is perceived. And in the case of Rio's 2016 Olympic golf course, the entire world will be watching how he mixed his paints.