Last August, Peter Dawson sat in his makeshift office at the Olympic Golf Course and contemplated the road traveled.
Dawson – the former chief executive of the R&A and current president of the International Golf Federation, which spearheaded golf’s return to the Games after a 112-year hiatus – conceded the challenges faced and the efforts required; but he explained that golf’s return to the Olympics in Brazil, as logistically taxing as it proved to be, was poetically perfect.
Dawson and the proponents of the game’s return described Olympic golf as the most promising grow-the-game initiative since the gutta-percha replaced feathery golf balls. And where else, Dawson asked that sunny day in Rio, has more growth potential than Brazil?
Six months removed from that conversation, Dawson’s point is still valid, but the Games' legacy, specifically that of the Gil Hanse-designed golf course, is no longer the beacon of hope officials assumed it would be.
Numerous reports have sketched a bleak portrait of the Olympic course since the Games ended. The layout draws few players, which might be a byproduct of $80 tee times, and officials have struggled to meet maintenance costs.
The course that Paulo Pacheco, the former president of the Brazilian Golf Confederation, which owns the facility, once called a “gift from God” has not even remotely lived up to those lofty expectations.
But things are getting better, explains Dawson.
“There’s a group of people who have come together that have a relationship with the land owner there, and they’ve re-engaged enough of the greens staff to keep the maintenance going,” Dawson said. “The greens staff now are being paid, which they weren’t.”
But keeping the doors open is not exactly the legacy officials had in mind when they invested in the project.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said the circuit had four employees take 110 round trips to Rio to assure the golf course’s completion before the Olympics.
“The PGA Tour did some wonderful work in the build up to the Games, sending people down there, particularly from their agronomy team,” Dawson said. “It cost them a great deal of money. They really did stand in their corner and more.”
But since the closing ceremony, that support has dried up. It’s not indifference or ineptitude, just an acknowledgment, however begrudging, that if golf is going to grow in Brazil (there are about 1,500 golfers in Rio, a city of 6 million) it must do so on its own.
The IGF, via the PGA Tour, R&A, USGA and other partners, could poor money into the course to assure its short-term survival (one report estimates it takes between $75,000-100,000 monthly to maintain the course), but Dawson explained that does little to secure the long-term viability of the layout and ignores the need for a local solution.
“It’s difficult for the international federation to take a lead role in that. It’s really a matter for the city and the local golf association,” Dawson said. “We have a great interest in what’s going on down there, but I’d like to see it be locally sustainable. Injecting a little bit of money now will only prolong the current problems. They need to become sustainable themselves.”
Monahan alluded to that reality last month.
“It’s very disappointing,” he said. “So to hear these continued questions as to the challenges to the golf course, which are very real, and honestly may not be solvable, it’s very disappointing.”
Golf is hardly alone in its post-Olympic handwringing.
According to a recent report in USA Today, Maracana Stadium, the site of the Opening and Closing Ceremony, has already been abandoned, and Deodoro Olympic Park, which was to be used as a park and recreation area after the Games, has been closed.
“Actually, the golf course is doing better than a lot of the other sport venues down there, which are really falling into disrepair rather quickly,” Dawson said.
But then that still doesn’t paint an encouraging picture for the Olympic Golf Course. Repurposing Olympic venues after the completion of the competition is always challenging, but golf was supposed to be different. Hanse’s layout was supposed to be different. It was supposed to become a beacon for the game in an undeveloped land.
Like he was last August on the eve of golf’s return to the Olympics, Dawson remains optimistic.
“I’m really hopeful it’s going to make a go of it, whereas maybe two months ago I had a lot of doubts,” Dawson said.
Perhaps golf’s future in Brazil, which is essentially ground zero in the game’s quest to grow, is promising as long as the Olympic course remains open. But if things don’t turn out, if the golf course like so many other venues fades into disrepair, where does the game go from here?