The construction of the 2016 Olympic golf course has been a disaster.
Simply acquiring the land to start building the course in Rio de Janeiro was a nightmare of municipal cronyism and irritating litigation that lasted for far too long.
Now, as grass is being laid on the property that will host golf’s return to the Games after a 112-year absence, a Brazilian state prosecutor could bring that work to a halt, requiring the developer to show it is managing the project to the country’s environmental protection standards.
That sounds like more litigation which, in Brazil, seems to mean months and months of delays. Few things have been resolved quickly to date in this process and it seems awfully unlikely the pace will quicken with this latest barrier. That puts the completion date of the course and having it tournament-ready for the ’16 Games into a deep freeze, set to come up against the date the first tee shot of 21st century Olympic golf on Aug. 5, 2016.
Olympic golf is about growing the game, certainly, by exposing it to new and developing audiences. South America is one of the game’s final frontiers, making the Rio Olympics such a fitting place for golf to get back into the program. However, it seems increasingly likely that the course simply may not be finished in time to host a tournament of its magnitude. It could make the sport look sloppy, unprepared and unappealing to millions of viewers who may be casually watching for the first time in their lives all because someone waving their flag is in the competition.
Presuming the Games are still held in Rio — despite the IOC’s characterization of their worst-ever preparation — maybe golf can’t be held there.
Let me suggest something radical: The 2016 Olympic golf tournament could be played in a completely different country than Brazil.
It would be unprecedented. It might seem ridiculous. It could further golf’s reputation as an insular, noses-thumbed sport. But it would alleviate a big headache.
OK, smart guy, you say. Then where?
Well, the most obvious answer would be at the site of the 2016 PGA Championship: Baltusrol in New Jersey. Problems abound, however, as the PGA of America never aimed to change their format in a one-off competition to determine a gold medal. They’d essentially be suspending the championship for one year to host the Olympics instead. And they’d have to host a women’s event the next week, like Pinehurst No. 2 is doing this year for the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open. Maybe not.
How about closer to Rio? If the Gil Hanse-designed course can’t be complete in time for the ’16 Games, Olympic golf should still be played at a top-tier venue. The problem is that there isn’t a single one in the top 100 of Golf Digest’s list of best courses outside of the United States. The closest is in Costa Rica in a small area best known for its fishing and ziplines, not golf. And don’t get me started on Costa Rican roads. The local joke is that the policia know who is driving drunk because they drive straight — into the enormous potholes dotting the roadscape.
The best bet within the confines of Rio would be Itanhanga Golf Club, which did land on the ’07 edition of the aforementioned Digest list. The club, founded in 1933, has a rich history, but not much in the way of distance. It plays less than 6,500 yards from the tips.
This hasn’t been an encouraging exercise. The reality is that organized golf may well not have a good Plan B if environmental litigation further thwarts construction of the Olympic golf course. While that would reflect poorly more on Brazil than the sport, it could put into jeopardy golf’s place in the Olympic program beyond 2020.