Olympic course made for scoring

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August 10, 2016
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May 8, 2018
Ben Brett in
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August 10, 2016

Five Americans were together on the Olympic Golf Course, checking out everything from the three types of sand in the bunkers to which side of the fairway allowed for the best angle to the green during a practice round Tuesday.

The group included Gil Hanse, who was not in a team uniform, didn't have clubs and won't be competing for a medal. And yet he still has plenty at stake.

Hanse designed the golf course. And he had more than just the best players in mind when he created it.

''We needed to build a golf course for the competition, which we knew was how the golf course ultimately would be judged,'' Hanse said Tuesday. ''But we also had to help grow the game in Brazil, and it had to be playable for the public.''

The result was a 7,128-yard course tucked into 240 acres with no trees and no rough, with humps and hollows along the fairways that resembles a links course, and with native areas that make it seem as though it belongs in the famed sand belt region of Melbourne.

Only in Rio are players warned about the capybara (a large rodent) and the caiman (a small crocodile) as part of the wildlife on the course, along with the corujas, an owl that burrows in bunkers and could lead to some rulings.

So far, the reviews have been positive. Then again, scores don't count until Thursday.

''It's a fun golf course to play,'' said Rickie Fowler, who arrived in time for the opening ceremony and has been playing the course since Sunday. ''Gil did a good job taking nothing and turning it into a great golf course without having time to make any changes or adjustments. There's a lot of fun characteristics.''

Hanse, however, is just as interested in what becomes of his course.

The way he measures success does not end with the Olympics; that's just the starting point. Brazil has next to no golf heritage, and there's plenty of skepticism that two weeks of Olympic golf will change that.

The course will be turned over to the Brazilian Golf Federation for at least 20 years to be a public course. The International Golf Federation is trying to stoke interest over the next two weeks by offering an area where fans can get swing tips and hit into nets, simulators with a closest-to-the-flag and long drive competition, and a six-hole putting course.

''What happens during the Olympics is going to be the engine for what happens after the Olympics in the success of this golf course,'' Hanse said. ''They are inexorably linked. If we have a great champion and a great competition, that's going to bode well. The long-term success of his golf course is probably more important.''

There's a chance these players - 60 men this week, 60 women next week - might never see this golf course again unless the PGA Tour stages a big event in South America down the road and picks Rio. This is the only continent where the Presidents Cup has not been played. So it would help for golf to put on a good show.

That starts with more birdies than bogeys.

Hanse did his part with a clever layout in which four of the par 4s are at least 479 yards, and the other par 4s are no more than 412 yards, including the 16th hole that measures 303 yards and can be reached off the tee.

That's the start of a three-hole finish designed to inject some excitement into an Olympic sport that takes four days to find a winner. The par-3 17th is a wedge, and the par-5 18th can be reached in two by every player in the field.

''We want it to be an exciting course,'' Hanse said. ''You look at the last three holes, those guys can go eagle-birdie-eagle to finish. If we wanted it to be difficult and impose our will on the field, we would have done something different. From our standpoint, we want to see scoring.''

Hanse wants a good winner, too. Most golf architects do, believing the quality of the champion is a reflection on the golf course. More than anything, he wants a finish that will be remembered for years to come - for the sake of the sport's future in the Olympics and the future of his golf course.

''I think it's a success if we get a great winner,'' Hanse said. ''It's a home run if we get one of those iconic Olympic moments. If we get that image, that people think five to 10 years from now about Rio 2016 and it's a golfer ... if we get one of those moments, it's a great thing.''

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