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Q&A with designer of first Olympic golf course in a century

By Liana B. Baker

REUTERS - Gil Hanse was chosen in 2012 to design the golf course for the return of the sport to Olympic competition after an absence of more than 100 years.

In winning the prestigious assignment, the 52-year-old American beat out some of the biggest names in golf, including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Gary Player.

Speaking to Reuters a month before the Olympics, Hanse discussed building a course from scratch in a country not known for golf, the signature features of his design and the decision by many of the biggest names in men's golf to pass up the Games.

Q: What is the vision for the course you created in Rio?

A: We try to build courses that feel like they belong and have a sense of place. Our goal was to build a golf course that feels like it sits on that site, which is very sandy, with low scrubby vegetation and has a more coastal feeling than anything. The vision was, what does a coastal golf course in Rio look like and how does it blend into its surroundings?

There's so few golf courses in Brazil. In order to paint a picture for those on the selection committee, our best comparison was sandbelt courses outside of Melbourne, Australia, that have similar vegetation and sandy nature. Ultimately the bunkering on our golf course is the closest parallel that we could draw from a visual standpoint that we could replicate from Australia.

Q: What was the biggest challenges you faced in building the course?

A: We had no control about what was going to happen in the courts with the land dispute and environmental challenges brought against the course. While we understood that was happening, we couldn't let that factor into what we were doing inside the gates because it was out of our control. The biggest challenge inside within the gates was overcoming a lack of understanding for how to build a golf course in Brazil also and the lack of resources at the start of the project to build the course efficiently. Those were the most frustrating aspects.

Q: How long did it take to make the final product and are you 100 percent happy with the outcome?

A: The construction ran about 20 months in total from when we first started working literally on the ground to when the grassing was completed. Yes, we are 100 percent happy with what was built. Even though it took longer and was a little bit more of a struggle than we had foreseen, at the end of the day, the results are exactly as we hoped they would be.

Q: The course is going to become public after the Olympics and some are hoping the sport will catch on in Brazil and capture the imagination of locals. Was that factored into the design?

A: Yes, for the angling and positioning of the tees in particular. As you move forward on the tees there are no forced carries, meaning, you don't have to hit it over sand or native grass to get to the fairways. The landing areas for the average golfer are also very wide. They only get narrower up where the professionals will hit it. The greens themselves are pretty large. Our anticipation is that by using difficult hole locations where you put the flag, we can create a challenge for the professionals yet still have lots of room on the greens for easier hole locations for everyday play.

Q: Will the course be equally challenging for men and women?

A: Our hope is that it will play in a similar fashion. The setup of the golf course will use similar hole locations. The general area of the green will have four locations for men during their rounds and we will use similar locations for the ladies. Our plan was to try to get it so the women are using similar clubs into the greens.

My hope is that it will play in a similar fashion but the deciding factor will be the weather. It is typically very windy in August. We designed the golf course to handle wind. So if the wind blows like it does normally I think it will be a really strong challenge. If it's very calm, the scoring will be lower.

Q: Will the lack of trees make it more windy and is it a "links" style venue?

A: The lack of trees certainly promotes wind movement through the golf course. As a general term, it’s fair to refer to it as a links course. But it’s not within the true definition of a links course.

Q: There’s been so many top golfers in the men's game who have dropped out and won't be playing in Rio. Any comment on that?

A: From a designer standpoint we are disappointed. You’d love to see the best players in the world be there competing on your course. But the field will be still very good on the men’s side. They are giving out a gold medal. I don’t think there will be an asterisk next to the man who walks off with the gold medal.

But the compelling story is the women. People say, oh, you’re not getting the best players in the world, well, you are with the women’s players. As of right now we have all the women top players, it’s an amazing showcase for them and the women’s game.

(Reporting by Liana B. Baker in San Francisco; Editing by Andrew Both)

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