With Olympics coming, golf world turns to Brazil
SAO PAULO — The golf world is starting to pay attention to the land of soccer.
With Rio de Janeiro preparing for golf's return to the Olympics after an absence of more than 100 years, some of the sport's top names are starting to show an interest in Brazil, especially in the opportunity to design the course that will host the historic tournament at the 2016 Games.
Robert Trent Jones Jr. visited Brazil this week and secured a spot in the race to build the course, joining a field that includes Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and others.
"I've been a longtime Olympic activist and obviously was very happy golf rejoined the games," Jones told The Associated Press while in Brazil. "We want to be part of it, it would be a wonderful thing."
Golf made its debut at the second modern Olympics in Paris in 1900, but was dropped after the 1904 games in St. Louis. The sport was returned to the Olympic roster by an International Olympic Committee vote in 2009 that also guaranteed it a place in 2020, but its participation beyond that will largely depend on an IOC evaluation after the Rio Games.
"The game of golf is in Brazilian hands," said Jones, who formed a partnership Wednesday with retired Brazilian golfing great Mario Gonzalez to vie for the Olympic course design work.
Norman will team up with Lorena Ochoa, and Nicklaus announced last year that he will join forces with Annika Sorenstam. Both served as "global ambassadors" during golf's successful bid to be part of the Olympics. Nicklaus would handle the championship tees for the men's tournament and Sorenstam for the women's.
"We have dozens of designers interested in this course, the international reaction has been great," said Paulo Pacheco, the Brazilian golf confederation's vice president of marketing. "I think it's even possible that one of these designers will offer their work free of charge just because of the importance of having their name associated with this historic tournament."
The course designer will be chosen in a process that will involve the International Golf Federation and the Rio 2016 organizing committee.
Brazilian Olympic organizers and local officials are in the final process of choosing the course's location, and the decision may be announced within two months, before IOC officials arrive in Rio for an Olympic project review in late April.
Though it's possible an established private course could be renovated, it's likely a new course will be built in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood of Rio, where most sports will be played during the Olympics, Pacheco said.
"Once you make the decision on the land, it takes about two years to build the course, then another year of preparations," Jones said. "If construction starts by January 2012, the course would be ready by 2015."
Officials want a public course to help boost the sport locally and develop it after the Olympics. Besides the course, organizers also want to build training academies and schools to develop golf professionals. Brazil currently has only one player in the PGA Tour, Alexandre Rocha.
"A public course will make all the difference to the growth of the sport in Brazil," Pacheco said. "It would help attract more people to the sport and would also become an important tool for social inclusion."
Among the private courses that could be upgraded, one option would be the Itanhanga Golf Club, which hosted a European Tour event in 2000 and will be home to the HSBC LPGA tournament in May. The Gavea Golf and Country Club also would be available, although many changes would be needed to accommodate a high-profile event such as the Olympics.
Brazilian golf officials want to bring other high-profile events to the country ahead of the Olympics, and there is a chance the Presidents Cup will be played in Rio in 2015.
Local governments will handle the cost of building or revamping a course for the Olympic competition, which will consist of a 72-hole stroke-play event for men and women, with 60 players in each field. Golf officials have promised the IOC they will not stage any major championships on the dates of the Olympic tournament.
Though golf has grown in popularity in Brazil, it remains an elite sport in the soccer-mad nation, where there are fewer than 30,000 golfers and just over 100 courses. The only true public course is the nine-hole Japeri Golfe Clube in Rio de Janeiro.
There is hope the Olympics will change that, helping attract more courses and making the sport more popular, changing the perspective many Brazilians currently have about the sport.
"The Olympics will show that golf is not a pastime for the older generations," Jones said. "It's a sport for the young people of the world."