Golf’s return to the Olympics: The real story of protests and killings

Golf News

To get golf back at the Games, Neil Cleverly and his staff had to endure a build-up that nobody could ever have imagined.

Golf and the Olympics was a strange and controversial marriage even before they finally made it down the aisle. The world’s best players offered up a variety of excuses why they wouldn’t be able to make it, the underlying reason being a lack of interest. But when it came to the big day itself there were nothing but smiles and laughter and birdies and six different medal winners.

The actual story behind closed doors is a very different one. The course, built at the Reserva de Marapendi in the Barra de Tijuca to the west of Rio, was funded by a property developer who agreed to build it in exchange for permission to construct multi-million-dollar apartments on some of the city’s most desirable real estate.

Neil Cleverly

This brought its own problems but only part of them. The site and course might have looked spectacular from the outside but, be it politically, financially or even chemically, it was a nightmare.

There were daily protests, a ground crew made up of brickies, plumbers and pizza delivery drivers and, on a daily basis, the very real possibility of drive-by shootings. At the heart of somehow getting the course ready in time was the superintendent Neil Cleverly, a quite immense individual. The likes of Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, and Inbee Park and Lydia Ko, and everyone else who has even a passing interest in the sport should buy him a drink one day.

Here Cleverly, a BIGGA member who was speaking at the BTME conference in Harrogate, tells his fascinating story…

In December 2012 I was asked if I was interested about the Olympic course job. You, take a step back and think, ‘Why me?’ I had several interviews in the January and February and got the job in March.

It took two to three months to do the work permits – nothing ever happens quickly in Brazil, there are a lot of politicians that don’t do a lot. Over the three and a half years I had a crew of 120 workers in total.

The road rage is like nowhere else. You get drive-bys and guys tapping on your window and asking for your wallet. You will find a safe route to work and then have to change that as they will find out, even at 4 o’clock in the morning.

I was in the military and there you had the choice of firing back, there are rules of engagement. There is no protocol when someone tries to hold you up.

I was given a bullet-proof truck with inch-thick glass but they could still shoot your tyres. They had shoulder-fired rockets in the favelas, they could get any black market weapons across the border.

This was a daily occurrence, not just for me but for my workers. Several of my crew lived three hours away so it would be two buses and sometimes those buses would be held up by guys with semi-automatics.

I had three of my guys killed in my time in Rio. They ran one bloke down and clubbed him to death. Another mistakenly went into a favela and was doing something illegal and he was chopped up. Then, last October, another, who was let go after we downsized after the Olympics, went back to being a pizza delivery guy. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was shot in the head. You live and breathe every day with these guys.

Would you want to sit on a bus for three days just to grow grass? I visited some of their homes for a barbecue, which was just a few bricks and coal, and what might have been meat. There is no middle class there, if you were middle class you owned a microwave and a fridge, if not you didn’t own any of those things.

After a few months you wonder how you are going to retain these people when this was the outlook. The way I did that was to treat them like human beings when they had never been treated like that before.

When you are born into a favela you never leave it. You’re not allowed to, if you do those people will find you and bring you back and beat you senseless, if not kill you.

A couple of my guys tried to leave and we had some unsavoury characters come to the maintenance centre to try and find them, we had to hire security guards.

The property developer wasn’t a well-liked person. He had a bullet-proof car.

Rio Olympic course

The equipment never arrived when it was supposed to and most issues were down to him. Ordering parts was almost impossible. Equipment wasn’t turning up and the mentality was ‘manana’ and that was down to the owner. He was very stubborn and his answer was, if we didn’t finish, we’ll move the dates. How can you move the Olympics!?

He once tried to run me over on the course, he was that arrogant. He died two days before Christmas, we didn’t think he was going to last until the Olympics as he smoked like a chimney and was well into his 80s.

Every day we would have protesters outside the gates throwing rotten eggs and tomatoes and abuse at us. We had naked women running around trying to get your attention and draw you into a dangerous area.

The protests started as a few and built up. The rumour was that a local politician didn’t like the developer so he was paying people – 100 real a day, which is about £25, to sit outside and throw abuse. That way you get people turning up, the most they could otherwise expect was £250 a month.

The sustainability ones were the most fanatical, they were saying we were killing animals, plants and removing indigenous plants and we weren’t doing any of that. The amount of times we invited them to see what we were doing– they never came in so we knew they were just there to cause trouble, they didn’t give a shit about the environment.

I have never worked on a site in 26 years where there was such diversity in the turf and this was something that the locals could never understand. The crew was made up of brickies, plumbers, pizza delivery guys, chefs, truck drivers, there were no turf specialists there. I would have to show them a piece of equipment and how it worked.

Rio Olympic course

The different colours and textures were such that we had five different areas of pH readings so we had to map the course in terms of soil chemistry where we could grow the grass evenly and consistently throughout 18 holes. We had 28 greens in total that had to be of the same material and quality.

It was a hand-to-mouth issue every single week. There are no golf companies out there who sell products. You would have to go to farm markets to buy products, we couldn’t use chemicals so we were hand-picking weeds every day before we grew anything.

I had in five different GPS companies before we could find one who could put the fairway flags in the right places. I would have people turn up on my door trying to sell me cow shit, not bags of it, just handfuls of cow shit. The owner had lots of land; donkeys, cattle, bulls, so I had truck loads of cow shit turn up and I would have to turn them all away and then the driver would get annoyed.

Rio Olympics course

When the grass started to come through it was like Christmas for them and the crew got more excited and the teaching side became more important.

Teaching them to walk behind the mower was the funniest thing I have ever seen. It was great to have a laugh about something after all the frustrations and it was finally fun for them to sit on a machine rather than just picking out millions of weeds.

You then had to teach them the difference between a machine that was working properly or not. I had guys crying because they thought they had broken the machine and they were heartbroken that they wouldn’t be able to sit on it the next day.

At the grassing stage I had to trust the workers with a supervisor. But when you put these guys together they would beat the crap out of each other. I have never seen people act that way to people who they have known all their lives, people they have lived next door to or above. They didn’t want to be told what to do, particularly if they supported the opposite football team.

So in the end I had no supervisors until I could get two of my people in. One was a girl, a superintendent from Cordoba, who was four foot nothing and 50 pounds soaking wet. She is still there. I am still in touch and am supposed to be going back but that depends on the contract.

You have got 204 million people living in Brazil and only 22,000 who play golf. To have the first 18-hole public course was foremost in the legacy thinking and to get public golfers onto that course. So far that hasn’t materialised.

The theory was to have a model where you could encourage junior and street-level golf and provide a facility where it was the best in the country. When the course opened to the public on October 1 there was a trickle of green fee players and that hasn’t picked up. To buy one club is maybe a month’s salary, let alone a bag of clubs and balls.

Rio Olympics course

The clubhouse is just bricks and glass, there is no bar or pro shop or restaurant, it needs some money and love. I think the course will still be there in 10 years. I couldn’t guarantee the condition, if you want a Tour event there now is the time to start working on it. It is hard to turn around warm-season grasses in August or September.

There are plenty in the industry who could provide clubs and balls and gloves for a junior programme. Where is the target audience in Rio? It’s not the beach goers.

We had the women starting to practise while the men’s event was still being finished so it was all very tight. A lot of players told me it was the best course they had played, Padraig Harrington said if he had to play one course for the rest of his career it would be there.

Every compliment that anyone paid I would tell all the crew and put it on a noticeboard, it was all down to them.

Watching the Games take place put so much pride back in my body. I had got so tired and frustrated at hearing the same crap every week.

Not many people know this but we had the Brasil Open four weeks after the Games and then the Rio City Amateur so that was four events in 10 weeks. When I told the crew about these other tournaments their chins hit the floor, everyone was so tired after the Olympics but they got through it and travelled three hours there and back and ran that gauntlet of danger.

When they knew I was leaving the guys were very emotional, they didn’t know what they were going to do. I was the one who was pushing them to learn more and get more money and teaching them new skills to create a better life for their family.

Would I do it again? Yeah, I’d do it again.

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