Saturday, February 4, 2012

worth reading Brazil 2016: The Road to Rio

February 3, 2012: This was the day that the deciders in Rio de Janeiro were supposed to announce the winner of the design competition for the Olympics’ golf course. Like so many of our days, however, this one ended not with a bang but with a whimper.

No decision was made. No winner was selected.

After sitting through presentations from the eight contestants vying for the commission, the selection committee has decided to sit a while longer. The committee now says it’ll announce the winner sometime next month.

So the waiting continues. Is this what it feels like to be pecked to death by ducks?

I hope the deciders don’t blow the next deadline. For now, let’s amuse and enlighten ourselves by reading the Wall Street Journal’s handicapping on the proceedings.

Designing and constructing championship golf courses is a major aesthetic and engineering undertaking. The courses are unique among sporting venues for the way they seamlessly blend competitive challenges into a natural, or natural-seeming, landscape. The best are considered by players and golf cognoscenti to be works of art.

This course bears an additional burden. Golf’s ruling bodies made a full-court press to get the game into the Olympics -– for the first time since 1900 and 1904 -– in the hope that the showcase will inspire a surge of interest around the world. Whereas roughly 100 million viewers tune in to all or part of each of golf’s major tournaments world-wide, the number for the 2008 Beijing Games was 4.7 billion, or 70 percent of the world's population, according to Nielsen.

Golf needs a global audience. The game's growth has stalled in the United States and Western Europe, but the industry sees a vast potential for expansion in the burgeoning middle classes of Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

Brazil is a case in point. For a country with nearly 200 million people and a booming economy (it’s now by some estimates the world’s sixth-largest and climbing), Brazil has very few golf courses -– scarcely more than 100. Soon it will open one with the whole world watching. . . .

The jury comprises representatives from Rio 2016, the city of Rio, the company that will run the course after 2016, and the International Golf Federation, whose mission in part is to foster the game’s global growth. The jury hasn’t publicly stated its criteria, except that after the Olympics the course must be operated as a public facility with a teaching academy.

Unlike many former Olympic sports complexes, which wind up as half-empty hulks, the course could have a popular afterlife. The hope is that it will become the locus for expanding the game in Brazil. The organizers also expect play from expatriates living in Rio and passengers from cruise ships that dock nearby.

Despite the secret criteria, some golf observers suspect there’s a front-runner: Mr. Nicklaus, primarily for political reasons. The Golden Bear was one of the earliest and most vocal advocates for golf as an Olympic sport, and in making his bid he shrewdly teamed with Annika Sorenstam, the former long-time women’s world No. 1 (and a European to boot, adding international appeal). That she is a woman is also a positive, since separate fields of 60 men and 60 women, including the game’s top pro stars, will compete on the course in the Olympics. . . .

Mr. Norman, not to be outdone, recruited Lorena Ochoa, the recently retired women’s world No. 1, to be his partner and co-marketer. Ms. Ochoa, from Mexico, plays well in South America but has limited hands-on design experience, even though her brother Alejandro is in the business.

Three other finalists also have international chops. Robert Trent Jones, Jr., whose father designed more courses around the world than anyone else, signed up a beloved Brazilian golf pro, Mario Gonzalez, as his partner. Gary Player of South Africa, a nine-time major champion and prolific designer, is a tireless health nut and promoter of physical fitness, which aligns with Olympic ideals. Peter Thomson, who won the British Open five times between 1954 and 1965, is teaming with his fellow Aussie and frequent design collaborator, Ross Perrett.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that political and promotional considerations qualify as cynical over-thinking. A knockout design could trump all, especially since golf’s future in the Olympics is not guaranteed. The vote to extend golf beyond the 2020 Games, when it will be included, will take place in 2017. So, in effect, the 2016 Games are a one-shot tryout.

This might play into the hands of the younger names among the finalists. Mr. Doak and Gil Hanse, both Americans, are best known for crafting quirky, inexpensive courses with wider fairways, fun-house green complexes, and an emphasis on giving golfers multiple options. The eighth finalist, Martin Hawtree of England –- he’s building Donald Trump’s new links course in Scotland –- works in a similar style.

Their courses are plenty challenging for the experts but tend to be easier for newcomers and high-handicappers to negotiate, as compared with the lusher, more heavily bunkered, penal-style courses that their elders in the competition are often known for. They also require less maintenance. That could sit well with the IGF representatives on the jury, who hope to impress upon the world how accessible and sustainable golf can be, contrary to its elitist popular image. . . .

Certainly whoever gets the job will not get rich from it, at least not directly. Rio 2016 will pay a flat design fee of $300,000, extremely modest given the man-hours and travel involved. The construction costs of the course, running into the low millions of dollars, will depend on which design is chosen and the necessary associated infrastructure.

But the legacy value will be immense, especially for the younger architects still seeking to cement their reputations. . . .

Groundbreaking is scheduled for October (a design turnaround time that is Olympic-sprint quick), with construction to be completed two years later and a big-time test tournament mandated on the course in 2015.