The toughest job in the world of golf course maintenance right now might belong to Neil Cleverly, the slender and staunch superintendent of the course for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
While there is glamour that comes with the job, there have been headaches, too, from dealing with construction delays caused by environmental protesters, to fielding a sufficient maintenance staff to help complete the project, to the rumors the course wouldn’t open on time for the Games.
“In all seriousness, this project is probably going to kill me by the time I’m through with it,” Cleverly says.
Cleverly made this remark to about 150 people who gathered to hear him talk recently as part of an event in San Antonio, Texas, promoting zoysiagrass, which the Olympic course sports on its fairways. His statement brought a few chuckles from the crowd, but nobody knew for sure whether he was kidding. Call it half joking.
Cleverly, who is from England, didn’t anticipate the politics that have come with the job. He just wants to grow grass.
Cleverly admits he has lost several pounds since taking the job and constructing the course, which began about two years ago. But, he says, the weight loss came from the hard work, not the stress associated with the job. The 56-year-old’s slender-as-a-flagstick frame doesn’t look like it has many more pounds to give.
“If you want to lose some weight, come join me in Brazil,” he says, again, half joking.
Cleverly seems like a nice guy. He’s a bit of a wisecrack (not a bad thing) and not afraid to speak his mind (also not a bad thing), which he admits can get him into trouble.
Cleverly also maintains strong values, in addition to his skills as superintendent of a golf course that soon will garner more media attention than any course in recent memory when the 2016 Summer Olympics begins in about a year. For instance, Cleverly isn’t just concerned about the course playing well during the Olympics, he’s concerned about its fate after the Olympics. This shows me he’s not just in this for the fanfare, considering he may well be gone from the job after the Olympics.
Cleverly says the course will become the property of Rio de Janeiro after the Olympics and will be the first public, 18-hole course in the city of 15 million people. “But who will play it?” he asks.
There are only about 100 golf courses in Brazil, a country slightly smaller than the U.S, and most of them are private. “There’s nothing public about golf in Brazil,” Cleverly says.
The Olympic course, designed by Gil Hanse, will be a magnet for the world’s high rollers and anyone else wishing to venture to Rio to play it after the Olympics. But the novelty will wear off eventually.
Cleverly may get in trouble for saying this, but he finds it “a bit bizarre” that the International Olympic Committee decided to return golf to the Games after more than a century the same year they’re hosted by a country with little connection to the sport. Besides, most Brazilians can’t afford to play the game.
“It would cost them a year’s salary just to buy clubs,” Cleverly says.
Give Cleverly credit, though. He’s lobbying to promote golf at the junior level in Brazil by teaching the game to local youngsters for free so the course has a future.
You get the feeling he doesn’t care as much about the prestige that comes with being the course’s superintendent as he does about its preservation. If I’m an Olympic judge, Cleverly gets a medal.