April 7, 2014

Golf in the Rio Olympics

The Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August 2016 will feature golf for the first time since the early 20th Century. Professional golfers traditionally have not been enthusiastic about Olympic golf since the Olympics just gives you a shiny medal instead of what tour pros really like: one those four foot wide novelty checks with your name written in the "Pay to the Order of" space in Magic Marker 9 inches high.

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.
Pete Dye's 1979 island green at TPC

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."
Rustic Canyon: Now what?

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.


Anonymous said...

Gold medal means endorsements.

Anonymous said...

How many favelas will be on the course?

Steve Sailer said...

"How many favelas will be on the course?"

As de Soto pointed out, that's a big problem in Latin America: property rights. It took me a long talk with de Soto to figure out the nub of the issue which is that the Kings of Spain and/or Portugal gave out huge tracts of land in the New World to favorites. The problem is that they were so huge, that the landowners had to invite their peons to live on their land since they couldn't commute from over the horizon. So, a lot of poor people have been living in one place for generations, and leave their shack to their heirs, but they don't actually own the land their shack is on: the only title is the one the King gave to some Conquistador in the 16th Century. The landowners are okay with the traditional favelas on their land, but they don't want to give formal title in case something turns up. So, the poor can't get mortgages on the places where they live or engage in other lowlevel acts of capitalism.

I don't know how exactly this fits the ongoing legal squabble over the land where the Olympic golf course was supposed to be built, but this problem is indicative of the woozy state of property rights in Latin America.

Big Bill said...

So tell me: what makes the Old Course so special? In engravings it looks like the flat plains of North Dakota. No trees, lots of prairie grass, rough terrain, easy to lose your ball. Probably bogs. Ruffed Grouse popping up everywhere. I can't even tell if it has greens.

Anonymous said...

The landowners are okay with the traditional favelas on their land, but they don't want to give formal title in case something turns up.

In English, we describe this state of affairs with words such as "serf", "serfdom", "feudalism", "Lord" or "Feudal Lord" or "Lord of the Manor" etc etc etc.

Steve Sailer said...

"what makes the Old Course so special?"

Slopes between 3 inches and 8 feet or so high: plenty of slope to affect the roll of the ball, but hard to see on TV.

The Old Course evolved out of people playing over grass covered sand dunes. Over the centuries they picked out the most challenging routes. Moreover, the low spots where their balls most often wound up got turned into sand bunkers by taking divots out of the grass over and over.

Eventually, around 1848 the local golf pro started to make conscious architectural improvements, such as building the famous 17th green complex. But the course has evolved for hundreds of years before then.

I suspect it's not wholly coincidental that Scottish Enlightenment ideas of guys like Adam Smith sound kind of like the process by which the Old Course at St. Andrews evolved. I've never found any evidence that Darwin played golf while he was a medical student in Scotland, but I wouldn't be surprised, either.

Anonymous said...

I literally live next door to where the golf course is being built in Rio. Nobody lives there, except a tiny amount of homeless people. The controversy is it is a national park that isn't supposed to be built on, one of the few green areas left on Rio de janeiros's beach front. They have already built a country club in it though, and this golf course is setting a precedent that this land is now open for real estate investment. They are already building apartments that are supposedly worth 20 million with the golf course. I am against it because it will increase traffic congestion, that is already atrocious, and will eventually lead to this 3 or so mile stretch of green being razed, diminishing barra da tijuca( the burrough its in) appeal. And I hate to see change regardless, especially where I grew up.

Look out for Marie McHugh, my sister, she is supposed to be on the Brazilian national team, I guess we'll see. Steve if you wanna come and enjoy the olympics, as a long time reader and huge fan I invite you to come see the action up close.

Steve Sailer said...


Anonymous said...

The biggest slum in Rio( not really but that's the consensus, there are bigger slum areas) is called rocinha, which means little farm. It was started by the workers(or slaves I guess) that lived there, and eventually expanded to any squatter that came. Now it is a huge city within a city. But you can still see the original farm house. A typical big farm house from the 19th century you see all over the southeast region of Brazil. Looks quite similar to my family's farm/plantation.from.that time period.

jiggaboo said...

This is where its being built. http://pt.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserva_de_Marapendi. Every body that lives there just call it reserva, or reserve. The picture is actually pretty much exactly where its going to be built . The building is part of the condominium alfabarra. The last buildings before building is prohibited, before it starts up again at recreio, the poor mans barra.

Anonymous said...

http://pt.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserva_de_Marapendi this is where it is being built. A nature preserve that I hate to see go.

Anonymous said...

There is some 2.600 soldiers, cops, marines in the Rio favelas right now... They will occupy it until the World Cup is over, more 2 years for the Olympics...

Jason said...

I guess most professional golfers are just country club republicans, and not real patriots, if they think the Olympics is beneath them. That's terribly sad, in my mind. If I were a great sportsman, there are few things I would like more than winning a gold medal - for myself and the U.S.A. (Really, I'm not being pious about this.)

JBO said...

It took me a long talk with de Soto to figure out the nub of the issue which is that the Kings of Spain and/or Portugal gave out huge tracts of land in the New World to favorites.

That's right, but, in the Brazilian case, by the mid-eighteenth century, the Portuguese state had reacquired all the land that it had given away in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries . From then on, these lands have belonged to the national state, not to private landowners.

That the Brazilian national state is an atrocious caretaker of its own possessions will surely astonish no one, but the reasons why this is so have nothing directly to do with feudal-like property rights.

Anonymous said...

I am not that good a golfer (I don't even keep score) but I have hit a few hundred absurdly beautiful shots in my life (if there were a golf version of the harlem globetrotter tricksters, that would have been my ambition). Having said that, I think it is fair to say that any golf course designer who thinks that it is a good idea to make you use trigonometric brain cells to hit the correct topological portion of a green to not roll off of after an otherwise decent shot is a disgrace to his profession, a disgrace to Scotland, and so on.

Anonymous said...

In defense of the patriotism of the tour pros, aside from winning a major, the most desirable honor is making the Ryder Cup team. As entrepreneurs, they are more than likely not Democrats.

Anonymous said...

The absence of golf in Brazil is apparent if you spend a while on Google Earth. Golf courses are easy to spot - but not in Brazil.

Golf is middlebrow and middle class. In Brazil, if you're not wealthy enough to helicopter in to play polo on weekends, you keep your head down.

It's still a fascinating, almost bewitching place. It mocks you as a tourist; tempting you you to spend a little time there, say forty years, to fathom the basics.

Gilbert P

roundeye said...

Nice to see the treehouse get mentioned.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

If I were a great sportsman, there are few things I would like more than winning a gold medal - for myself and the U.S.A. (Really, I'm not being pious about this.)

The Olympics should be reserved for amateur sportsmen competing in classical tests of strength, speed and endurance. Making the Olympics the Superbowl Of Everything has killed it.

It's actually become a neo-pagan liturgy, complete with a bacchanalian orgy. So I guess we've come full circle.

Mr. Anon said...

Does every form of competition need to be in the Olympics? How long till skateboarding, Motocross, and Parkour get into the Olympics?

Anonymous said...

***"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."***

Meanwhile, the World Cup kicks off in Brazil June 12, 2014, and several of the stadiums may not be ready in time.

So, he should be nervous.

Steve Sailer said...

We might just need the athletes to compete in some new events.

Like what?

Oh, like, stadium construction.

Anonymous said...

On the actual topic: golf is ill-suited to the Olympics - being basically a game of chance on a given week, between the best fifty or so in the world.
The Olympic Games is about crowning the Best. Golf does not work this way. The players know it better than anyone.
When Todd Hamilton won the claret jug, everyone smiled and said 'good for him.' They did not say: ' Here is the finest exponent of the art of golf in the Queen's realm.'

Gilbert P