Featured photo: Neil Cleverly, who endured myriad challenges to get the Olympic course prepared, is said to be relieved that the opening day for play is finally here. Photo: By David Doguet
It’s showtime for Neil Cleverly, although the golf course superintendent for the Olympic course sometimes wondered if the curtain would ever rise to unveil the Gil Hanse-designed track in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Today, golf is being played on the course — the men’s Olympic competition began this morning — and it’s the first time the game has been played in the Olympics in 112 years.
“Now it’s not a dream, it’s reality,” Cleverly recently said of the course being completed. “All of the hard work of the past … the aggravation, the wishing I had this and wishing I had that … is past.”
Cleverly, who came to Rio more than three years ago to help build and maintain the course, has literally lived the Olympic course for three years. The project has consumed him. But without Cleverly enduring the myriad hassles associated with it, the project might not have been completed.
“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.
“Of the 7.2 billion people on Earth, there are probably five people who could have started that job and finished it,” says Tim Hiers, the director of agronomy at the Club at Mediterra in Naples, Florida, who is a good friend of Cleverly’s and spoke to him often during the project.
The construction and grassing of the Olympic golf course did not go smoothly. The project got off to a rough start, partly because of a lack of funding, and was 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.
For Cleverly, the challenges began when it came to putting a maintenance crew together. There was not a pool of people to choose from who understood anything about golf course maintenance. There was plenty of turnover on the crew before Cleverly assembled a team of 29 people.
There were also equipment issues, mainly not being able to secure the proper equipment for several months because it was not available in Brazil. The equipment had to be transported from overseas, which came with its own roll of red tape.
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,” says Cleverly, whose crew had to hand pick the weeds — millions of them — to prepare the course for sodding and sprigging.
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.
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, never gave in.
“If you keep saying ‘woe is me’ all the time … you’re going to end up getting on a plane and leaving,” he says.
Hanse says most superintendents would 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,” Hanse says.
But, as Cleverly says, the past is a goodbye.
Golf is being played on the Olympic course.