Neil Cleverly is bold, bullheaded and burning with desire — just the traits that were needed to help get the 2016 Olympic Course built for next month’s summer games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In fact, if it wasn’t for Cleverly enduring through myriad hassles associated with the project, the first-ever Olympic Course might not have been completed. That’s what people close to the project are saying about Cleverly, the Olympic Course’s golf course superintendent.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of other superintendents would have walked away from this project,” says David Doguet, who operates Bladerunner Farms in Poteet, Texas, and developed the Zeon zoysiagrass used on the Olympic Course’s fairways, tees and roughs.
Says Gil Hanse, the golf course architect who designed the Olympic Course: “I’m not so sure that a lot of superintendents wouldn’t have thrown in the towel. Neil never did. If he had, I don’t know how we would have recovered from that sort of loss.”
Cleverly didn’t anticipate the turmoil that would come with the job – he just wanted to grow grass. Looking back, he says the job has been both a dream and a nightmare for him.
“In all seriousness, this project is probably going to kill me by the time I’m through with it,” Cleverly said last year.
The construction and grassing of the Olympic Course, which began about three years ago, did not go smoothly. While serious internal issues continue to hinder the host city – from crime to political corruption to a poor economy to the Zika virus threat – the Olympic Course has had to deal with its own set of challenges and controversies.
The course was built on a nature reserve, an undeveloped parcel of sandy land at Reserva de Marapendi in Barra da Tijuca, a suburb west of Rio. The project got off to a rocky start because of a lack of funding.
“Apparently, there was still a lot of negotiating that needed to occur when we arrived in February of 2013 expecting to get going,” Hanse says, noting the project was basically stalled for nine months.
Then there were legal challenges and land disputes. When construction finally got going, there were environmental protesters and other assorted bureaucracy.
“There were instances during the construction process that were immensely frustrating for all of us,” Hanse says.
For Cleverly, the challenges began when it came to putting together a maintenance crew. There was not a pool of people to choose from who understood anything about golf course maintenance. There was also turnover on the crew before Cleverly assembled a team of 29 people.
There were equipment issues as well, mainly not being able to secure the proper machinery for several months because it was not available in Brazil. The equipment also had to be transported from overseas, which came with its own roll of red tape.
“We never really got everything we needed,” Cleverly says.
One of Cleverly’s biggest frustrations was being told he would not be allowed to use virtually any herbicide during the grow-in.
“When I looked down the lines of the holes and saw all those weeds … there are no words to describe how frustrated I was when I realized that we weren’t going to be able to spray them with herbicide,” Cleverly says.
But he did not give in. Cleverly and his crew hand picked the weeds – millions of them – to prepare the course for sodding and sprigging.
“Rain or shine, we had to go out and hand pick the weeds,” Cleverly says.
And then there were the environmental protesters. For months, Cleverly and others were labeled as eco-terrorists and accused of destroying the land.
“We went through a whole barrage of abuse – being sworn at, and things being thrown at us as we entered and left the property,” Cleverly says.
Throw in the language barrier and having to deal with myriad golf organizations that wanted a say on the project, and Cleverly had the distinction of likely holding the toughest job in the world of golf course maintenance.
Cleverly admits that during all of the strife he asked himself, “Oh God, what have I done? Are we really going to get this done the way that we are doing it?”
But the 57 year old, who spent several years in England’s elite British Royal Marines and was the equivalent of a U.S. Navy SEAL, didn’t concede, despite working long hours seven days a week.
“If you keep saying ‘woe is me’ all the time, you’re going to have a heart attack or your health is going to fail, and you’re going to end up getting on a plane and leaving,” he says.
Cleverly credits his military career and his parental upbringing (both his parents were in the military) for instilling him with a sort of stamina not common to most people.
“When you are trained to that level, there is a discipline associated with it that serves you well,” Hanse says. “Neil was very disciplined. He had to be. He didn’t let his emotions get the best of him.”
Cleverly says, “If you don’t have discipline in our life, you’re not going to get done what you need to get done.”
Hanse knows many superintendents who are passionate about what they do and have tremendous work ethics.
“But where Neil takes it to a higher level is his stubbornness and dogged determination to get the job done against all odds,” he adds.
Cleverly, who has worked on courses in several countries including the U.S., Egypt, Mexico and the Caribbean, was asked to apply for the job partly because of his experience with managing seashore paspalum and zoysiagrass, the two grasses on the Olympic Course.
“But who wouldn’t want the job?” Cleverly asks. “You are talking about history being made.”
Cleverly began his career in golf course maintenance shortly after leaving the British military. In 2001-2002, he spent 18 months as an intern at the Old Collier Golf Club in Naples, Florida, and worked under Tim Hiers, who was Old Collier’s golf course manager at the time.
Hiers, currently the director of agronomy at the Club at Mediterra in Naples, describes Cleverly as “driven, intelligent, anal, ambitious, hard-working and reliable.”
At Old Collier, Hiers says he couldn’t pair an employee to work with Cleverly if he knew that employee couldn’t keep up with Cleverly. “Neil wouldn’t tolerate it,” Hiers adds.
Agronomically, Hiers says Cleverly is as smart as a Ph.D. “He is not your typical golf course superintendent,” Hiers adds.
But as intense as he is, Hiers says Cleverly has a great sense of humor. “I’ve pulled a couple of really good tricks on him over the years,” Hiers says.
Hiers and Cleverly have spoken often the past three years. Hiers says he has been concerned about Cleverly’s health, most notably that Cleverly has lost about 40 pounds since going to Rio.
“He weighs now what he did in high school,” Hiers says.
When they have talked on the phone, Cleverly doesn’t complain; he just tells Hiers candidly the obstacles he has been up against.
“It has been physically and mentally draining for him, but he has had the discipline to survive,” Hiers says.
Cleverly has no family with him in Rio; his wife died several years ago. His work on the Olympic Course has been his life for the last three years.
Doguet, who has spent ample time on the site and has got to know Cleverly well, is astonished that someone can be so focused and driven to complete such an arduous task.
“Neil wakes up thinking about [the golf course]. I don’t think he talks about anything else,” Doguet says. “He lives and breathes it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Doguet is so moved by Cleverly’s commitment to the Olympic Course that he was brought to tears when talking about it.
“I can’t imagine any project where the superintendent was more important – ever,” Doguet says. “I’ve never seen a guy put forth the effort that he has.”
On a recent spring day, a Sunday, Cleverly has just returned to his office after topdressing the course’s greens. It’s a sunny day, and Cleverly is in good spirits.
The golf course is coming along well. Those who have seen it say it looks spectacular. For as good as it looks, people say it’s amazing that Cleverly has used such few inputs on the turf to have it in such premium condition.
“To look at the conditions with the sun shining on it is astonishing,” Cleverly says. “I think the players will really enjoy the design of this golf course.”
The course is also being hailed for its increase in biodiversity. Last February, the State of Rio de Janeiro’s Department of Justice issued a report – initiated by by a civil lawsuit filed by state prosecutors who questioned the environmental impacts of the project – that the course has contributed to the growth of local vegetation and animal life in the Marapendi area.
For Cleverly, Hanse and others, the report provided vindication, considering what they went through with the environmental protesters. But Cleverly was not surprised with the report, saying he and others worked closely with local environmental authorities during construction and grow-in and did everything possible to preserve the land, including replanting trees and shrubs native to the area.
“To read the report … the emotion that runs through your body … it was a culmination of everybody’s work,” Cleverly says.
With the grandstands and tents being erected on the course to accommodate the crowds who will come to watch the Olympic golf, it struck Cleverly that the project was nearing its conclusion.
“Now it’s not a dream, it’s reality,” he says. “All of the hard work of the past … the aggravation, the wishing I had this and wishing I had that … is past,” he says.
When the Olympics are over, Cleverly is not sure what he will do. Will he stay at the Olympic Course, the first professional-quality 18-hole public course in Brazil?
“I’m not sure what he will do – if he will stay or go, but he will get the highest recommendation from me,” Doguet says. “If you have a project, you want this guy. He is totally loyal and will make sure he gets the job done.”
Adds Hiers, “I’d hire him in a heartbeat.”
Cleverly appreciates the endorsements, but he says getting the Olympic Course built was a true team effort – something those involved will never, ever forget.
Olympic Course at a Glance
- Golf returns to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil after 112 years.
- The 18-hole Olympic Golf Course, designed by Gil Hanse, was constructed for the event.
- The course will play 7,350 yards at par 71.
- Planning and construction for the Olympic Course began four years ago.
- Golf at the Olympics will take place AUG. 5-21 (men’s, Aug. 11-14; women’s, Aug. 17-20).
- The course features Zeon Zoysiagrass on the fairways, tees and rough, and Seadwarf Seashore Paspalum on the greens.
- Seadwarf Seashore Paspalum, featured on the Olympic Course’s greens, is licensed by Environmental Turf. It was developed by Florida-based Certified Golf Course Superintendent Stewart T. Bennett. University of Georgia researcher Ronnie Duncan was one of the first breeders of seashore paspalum.
- Turfgrass breeder Dave Doguet, owner of Bladerunner Farms, developed the Zeon zoysiagrass on the Olympic Course’s greens, tees and roughs.
- Neil Cleverly is the golf course superintendent of the Olympic Course. The London native has been a superintendent for more than 25 years, and has managed courses in Europe, Egypt, Mexico, the United States and the Caribbean.
“I might be leading the ship, but you have to have a good crew to steer it,” Cleverly says.
But according to Hiers, there aren’t many people in the world who could lead the ship that was building and growing in the Olympic Course.
“Of the 7.2 billion people on Earth, there are probably five people who could have started that job and finished it,” Hiers says.
The Olympic Course, fortunately, had one of them.