A quarter of a century ago, there was big talk about holding an Olympic golf tournament at Augusta National during the 1996 Atlanta games, but the tour pros weren't interested and Augusta is closed in August, anyway, because -- although this seemed to come as a surprise to the International Olympic Committee -- it's hot and humid in Georgia in August.
But the golf industry wants to be in the Olympics now. And Brazil might conceivably be a good market someday for golf, since, unlike China, the country has a reasonable amount of land per person. But Brazil has almost zero golf tradition, so a new course is supposed to be built in Rio to host the men's and women's Olympic tournaments.
The Rio Olympic course is the the highest profile golf course commission of the decade. The surprise winner over Jack Nicklaus's and Greg Norman's firms was Gil Hanse, head of a tiny but excellent design firm, who promised to move to Rio for two years and drive the bulldozer himself.
The problem so far has been that exactly who owns the land where the golf course is supposed to go wasn't exactly nailed down. (Economist Hernando de Soto, who has frequently noted Latin America's less than clear-cut property rights, wouldn't be surprised.)
So far, Hanse has roughly shaped the golf course in the dirt, but he's visibly nervous in interviews about having the grass ready in 28 months.
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Assuming it gets finished in time, the Olympic course will be a test of the mass appeal of trends in elite golf course design thought away from spectacular and expensive do-or-die holes and toward cheap, complex, and baffling, back to much like St. Andrews in Scotland, which more or less evolved over hundreds of years of play.
A couple of decades ago, Tom Doak pointed out that pros don't fear water hazards anymore, they only fear wind and gravity. In other words, they don't worry about being able to hit the ball far enough to cross a water hazard, they worry about being unable to stop the ball on the fairway or green. Hanse, along with Doak and the Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore team are the leaders of this generation of architects who have thought hardest about reproducing the subtle challenges of St. Andrews in the 21st Century.
When asked which existing course his Rio course will most resemble, Hanse says, "I think Rustic Canyon (in Los Angeles) would be the closest. It’s set on a similarly sandy site, and, like Rustic, it feels very indigenous to the area."
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I played Hanse's Rustic Canyon on Wednesday for $36. I don't play much golf these days, but when I do it's almost always at Rustic because the quality to price ratio is so much higher than anywhere else in the greater L.A. area. And now, after Rustic has been open for a dozen years, the grounds crew has the greens in close to US Open quality. (A British Open would be more than pleased with how Rustic's greens played yesterday.) I hit quite a few greens yesterday with my irons, but typically the ball would then slowly, slowly trickle off the green because I hadn't hit the perfect part of the green. And even if I could execute shots perfectly, are my 3-d cognitive skills strong enough to plan shots perfectly?
Yet, Rustic is not a punishing course. The fairways are immensely wide, there are no ponds, streams, or waterfalls. The chief penalty for hitting an indifferent shot is that your ball keeps rolling until it reaches a spot disadvantageous for your next shot. Your score keeps mounting without anything spectacularly bad happening to you.
In theory, Rustic Canyon style courses have a lot going for them: they can be built cheaply on unexciting terrain and they challenge good golfers while not beating up bad golfers. Thus, Rustic Canyon is held in the highest regard by golf course architecture aficionados. On the other hand, you can play Rustic Canyon for $36, so it's not as if it has overwhelmed the golfing public.
It will be interesting to see if Hanse's Olympic course televises well to an even less sophisticated audience.