One year later: Olympic course defies the odds

By Rex HoggardAugust 21, 2017, 4:00 pm

Each morning on his way to work Marcio Galvão drives by the vacant sports arenas in Rio’s Olympic Park and the 3,600 empty apartments in the boarded-up Olympic Village.

Like most Brazilians who expected so much more from the 2016 Olympic Games, the first held in South America, it makes Galvão’s heart sink.

“It’s a disaster, a disaster,” he says. “From a Brazilian perspective, it’s a shame, because it’s a kind of incompetence from the governance.”

It also serves as a daily reckoning of how crucial Galvão’s job is, not just to golf in Brazil but to the ultimate legacy of the ’16 Games.

Those who know him call Galvão a “serious guy,” although the 67-year-old’s infectious smile and quick laugh suggest otherwise. In July, he took the job as CEO of the Rio Olympic Golf Course with what he calls an “ambition-driven approach,” which he explains is a concept born from a lifetime in the world of finance.


Full golf coverage from the Rio Olympic Games


Simply put, Galvão’s plan for the build-it-and-they-will come Olympic layout is to “create a dream and ambition that’s sustainable.” It’s a lofty goal by any standard, but particularly in Rio where the government declared a state of financial emergency in 2016 and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison last month.

But for Galvão failure truly isn’t an option, not with such absolute consequences.

“When the Olympic Games ended we made an effort with the company that developed the course. At that time it was very simple, if we close one week we would lose $20 million,” he says, explaining that if maintenance at the Gil Hanse-designed layout stops for a week the financial reality is that the cash-strapped consortium that now runs the complex wouldn’t be able to bring it back to anything close to playable conditions.

Perhaps more importantly, golf in Brazil would lose what former Brazilian Golf Confederation president Paulo Pacheco called a “gift from God.”

One year ago, not long after the echoes of the closing ceremony at Maracanã Stadium had drifted into the mountains, the Rio course was turned over to the country’s golf confederation. The turmoil that followed was both painful and predictable.

An Agence France-Presse report last November described a layout overgrown with natural vegetation and nearly devoid of players. But as the anniversary of that historic hand-over passes it appears the rumors of the layout’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

“The visions of an Olympic course that was going to be overgrown and left to waste didn’t occur. There seems to be a genuine desire to create white elephants when the Olympics are over,” says Mark Lawrie, the R&A’s director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

In April, when Lawrie returned to the Rio course, he found a much different reality. Although he admits the volume of play hasn’t been what officials hoped for, the course itself remains playable with conditions Galvão contends are better than what the world’s best competed on for medals a year ago.

“It’s one of the great legacies that has come from the Games,” says AntonyScanlon, the executive director of the International Golf Federation, which oversees golf in the Olympics. “I know the Brazilian Olympic Committee is proud and trying to change the wrong message from December that the course was closed and a white elephant. We’re seeing some regular use of the course and regular maintenance of the course and it’s becoming a great story from the Games, and who would have thought that when you figured the five-, six-year build that we had and the humps we had leading up to that.”

Even more encouraging, Galvão has a 10-year plan to not just keep the course financially viable but to fulfill the lofty legacy of becoming a beacon for golf in a country that has just 9,202 registered golfers and 120 courses.

Currently, the course averages about 700 rounds a month, a number Galvão hopes to double by the end of the year. The plan is for some of that growth to come from tourism, with about 15 percent of the current play coming from foreigners.


Hoggard: One year later: Olympics give golf global spark


The remainder of that growth will be homegrown via an ambitious green-grass plan that begins in elementary school.

“We have to implement the golf legacy from the Games. We need to increase the number of golfers through social inclusion,” Galvão says. “It’s important to have a partnership between the public and the private school to bring kids to the course.”

Every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon, Galvão and his staff offer free lessons to new players, both children and adults, on the Rio course practice range. Players graduate to the small four-hole course from there. Galvão says those clinics are currently fully booked, a sign, however anecdotal, that despite the public perception of golf being only for the elite, there is at least a passing interest in the game.

Galvão is also creating what he calls a golf scholarship program, which he envisions expanding to 300 juniors via funding from corporate donations. Like many things in Rio, it’s a barter concept – sponsor a junior’s membership in exchange for a corporate membership at what is Rio’s only public course.

Along those same inclusive lines, the plan is to create a technical school to help train young adults for a career in the golf industry by allowing them to work at the Olympic course.

“In Brazil it is very important to create this atmosphere of golf not being an elite sport. It’s to help make more inclusion,” Galvão says.

Galvão’s optimism is contagious and he’s confident his plan, which he will present to the IGF and R&A later this month, is a rare mix of financial responsibility and social activism, but the challenges he and his staff face can’t be ignored. He sees them every morning on his drive to work.

Green fees for foreigners at the Olympic course are about $150, a reasonable sum for a tourist to play the same course where Justin Rose won a gold medal, but resident rates range from about $75 on the weekend to $50 on a weekday, which are both outrageous sums for a country where the average monthly salary is $678.

“I would say a little bit,” Galvão concedes when asked if those green fees might be too expensive.

But with no chance of financial support from the government, at this point the optimist in Galvão defers to the businessman. Fulfilling its role as a catalyst to grow the game in Rio will always be the course’s primary legacy. But to do that officials must keep the doors open and the grass cut.

“We are very proud. Two years ago nobody believed that golf would succeed in the Games. Nobody believed that the golf course would continue to be open to the public. So, we had success during the Games, from public, from marketing, every aspect; and we’re very proud that we kept the golf course open,” he says. “We’ll make this happen, no doubt. It will take some work, of course, but we’ll make it happen.”

Galvão sees the painful alternative far too often as he drives around Rio in the deserted and decaying venues from last year’s Games, but failure at the Olympic course is not an option.

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.


Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery


A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.

Love's hip surgery a success; eyes Florida swing return

By Rex HoggardNovember 22, 2017, 3:31 pm

Within hours of having hip replacement surgery on Tuesday Davis Love III was back doing what he does best – keeping busy.

“I’ve been up and walking, cheated in the night and stood up by the bed, but I’m cruising around my room,” he laughed early Wednesday from Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent surgery to replace his left hip. “[Dr. James Flanagan, who performed the surgery] wants me up. They don’t want me sitting for more than an hour.”

Love, 53, planned to begin more intensive therapy and rehabilitation on Wednesday and is scheduled to be released from the hospital later this afternoon.

According to Love’s doctors, there were no complications during the surgery and his recovery time is estimated around three to four months.

Love, who was initially hesitant to have the surgery, said he can start putting almost immediately and should be able to start hitting wedges in a few weeks.

Dr. Tom Boers – a physical therapist at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who has treated Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Brad Faxon – will oversee Love’s recovery and ultimately decide when he’s ready to resume normal golf activity.

“He understands motion and gait and swing speeds that people really don’t understand. He’s had all of us in there studying us,” Love said. “So we’ll see him in a couple of weeks and slowly get into the swing part of it.”

Although Love said he plans to temper his expectations for this most recent recovery, his goal is to be ready to play by the Florida swing next March.