It may be thousands of miles away and enjoy a rather different climate, but the new Olympic golf course in Rio can trace its roots to the Scottish Highlands.
Golf will return to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years in August on a course that has been attracting outstanding reviews for its creator, the world renowned architect and designer Gil Hanse.
Hanse will have the unusual honour of having some of the world’s leading golfers play on two of his courses within a matter of weeks this summer. From 7-10 July, the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open will be played at Castle Stuart Golf Links, near Inverness, the course he co-designed with Mark Parsinen and which is, in many ways, a model for the Olympic venue.
Castle Stuart opened in 2009 and since then has achieved worldwide acclaim and has hosted the Scottish Open on three previous occasions, most recently in 2013 when Phil Mickelson won the tournament a week before his victory in The Open championship at Muirfield.
When constructing the Castle Stuart course, Hanse and Parsinen were influenced by the wide fairways at St Andrews and this has continued into the Rio design.
“We learned so much working with Mark Parsinen at Castle Stuart and there are certainly many parallels between our course in Rio and Castle Stuart, just as Mark and I leaned heavily on our affection for The Old Course when we worked at Castle Stuart”, says Hanse.
“The wide fairways are one comparable feature and the bunkering in Rio is very dramatic and innovative and I feel the same way about the bunker work at Castle Stuart.
“We also worked very hard on the pace and flow of the routing in Rio, visiting the different parts of the site during the course of the round. This was very much the philosophy at Castle Stuart where the routing also has a very natural flow to it, from low to high, from coast to bluff, and back again.”
Hanse says one constant on both sites is the wind, and the dependence on it to provide the main challenge to the class of golfer who will be playing in the Scottish Open and The Olympics.
“We have witnessed this at the Scottish Open during all three tournaments where the scoring average fluctuated dramatically depending on the wind conditions. I believe that the same will be true in Rio.
“Even though these are the Summer Games, they will be held during winter in Rio and August is typically the driest and windiest time of year. We are hopeful that both of these conditions will be in effect so that we can see the competition played over a firm and fast course where the wind is a factor.”
Located 9km from the Olympic Village, the par 71 course has no rough, the fairways instead flowing directly into native sand and grass areas.
“We felt like it would be a positive way to present the golf course as well as emphasising the width of the course”, says Hanse. “The lack of rough will also allow balls to move faster towards the native sand areas which provide a more difficult challenge to the players. The bunkers on the golf course are the most visually dramatic part of the course and they are in evidence as being the key strategic elements for the tee and approach shots.”
The new course was inaugurated in March when nine Brazilian golfers took part in the Aquece Rio Golf Challenge. The highest ranked player in the men’s draw, Alexandre Rocha, finished tied for the lead with a three-under par 68.
Rocha said later: “This is the future for us. Our existing courses are old and this is modern golf.”
Hanse says his team are very pleased with the way the course has matured and the play during the test event confirmed a lot of their thoughts about its playability.
He added: “The presentation of the course with the wide fairways, short grass chipping areas, and the native vegetation that has been established paints a picture of golf that we are very proud of.
“The bunker work really stands out as the most dramatic features on the course. Our team worked hard to create a look and feel like the bunkering from the Australian sandbelt courses and Castle Stuart construction alumnus.”
The design of the Olympic course adds to the debate on playability of golf courses and efforts to attract more players by speeding up play and making the experience more enjoyable.
Hanse continued: “The two words that Mark Parsinen kept telling us at Castle Stuart as it relates to public playability, was to keep the golfers ‘engaged and hopeful’.
“We always felt that the way to do this was to create wide playing corridors for the tee shot and to have short grass recovery shots with humps and hollows around the greens. This type of course allows all golfers to remain in play and to be hopeful of hitting a comfortable, quality shot as they make their way around the course.
“These conditions allow players to ‘play’ the course and enjoy their round. However, for golfers to ‘score’ on the golf course their level of precision needs to be much higher and this can be accomplished by building greens with some very challenging hole locations for the top level golfers, so that they need to approach these hole locations from a particular angle in order to score.
“We believe that this style of design has worked at Castle Stuart and has been a great model for us on the Olympic course.
At present Brazil is not known as a great golfing country, but the fact that the Olympic course will be used to help increase public participation in the game after the Games obviously influenced Hanse’s thinking on its design.
“We are hopeful that with an exciting competition and a course that the Brazilians can be proud of, our course may provide the impetus to change this attitude.
“If one of the iconic moments of these Olympics occurs on the golf course I believe it will have a great impact. The likelihood of a Brazilian golfer being competitive is not very high but, if they could play well, that would be an enormous boost for the game in Brazil.”
Hanse will have a somewhat unique viewpoint during the Olympics and Scottish Open, but hopes the focus will be on what happens on the courses, rather than the courses themselves.
“It is a great honour for us to have both championships contested on our courses. However, I always believe that the best result from an architecture standpoint is that the course is not the story, rather the play on the course, and how the course influences that play is the real story.
“To that end, we always hope that we get a great champion on our courses, and that certainly held true the last time the Scottish Open was held at Castle Stuart, with Phil Mickelson winning, and then going on to lift the Claret Jug the following week.”
Castle Stuart Golf Links www.castlestuartgolf.com
Gil Hanse www.hansegolfdesign.com