A Beautiful Game: Golf Doesn’t Mean Much to Most Brazilians, But to Some, It’s Everything

May 10, 2016

The birdcage hangs on a sagging cable, above a stack of bricks that may one day complete a front porch. The coop’s weathered frame is faded from years of exposure to the Brazilian sun. Perched inside is a coleiro the size of a child’s fist, with a white chest, dark head and shadowy wings. For five years the bird has lived in this enclosure on Lucas Antonio Dos Santos Street in Japeri, a sleepy village on the outskirts of Rio. A rooster crows. A naked child plays in the road. Plastic tubs gather water from a recent storm. The bird was never officially christened, but 19-year-old Breno Domingos calls his family’s pet Fabuloso.

Breno lives with his parents, Francisco and Vanilda, in a ramshackle two-structure compound. The primary living space consists of a tiny kitchen, dining room and bathroom. A single-room cement slab out back serves as the bedroom for all three Domingos. Francisco was a house painter before he was laid off a couple of years ago. Now he cobbles together odd jobs while Vanilda tends to the home. Every night Breno curls up on a small mattress on the floor while his mother and father take the bed.

Breno wakes at 8 a.m. to begin a routine far different from other teenagers in the neighborhood. He slips into a polo shirt, throws a well-worn golf bag over his shoulder, and shuffles out the door. His golf clothes and gear were donations but his accomplishments have been hard earned, one scuffed range ball at a time. Breno practices for several hours a day at Brazil’s lone public course, a gritty nine-hole track 20 minutes down the road. He also gives lessons to junior golfers, which for now is the family’s primary source of income. After smacking drives, stroking putts and shaping swings under the hot sun, Breno hustles home for a shower and snack, before boarding a city bus for the hour-long ride to Estácio de Sá, a four-year university. Breno attends three classes and returns home around midnight, aching for his mattress.

Dozens of medals and trophies line the shelves in the family’s sleeping quarters — tributes to a teen who is, almost certainly, the most improbable elite golfer in Brazil. Breno has won two major amateur championships and last year rose to No. 1 in his state’s junior ranking. Today he’s the third-ranked adult in the state. Breno attends the university on a golf scholarship and is in his second year toward an engineering degree.

Across the street from the Domingos’ residence, the family is slowly building another home — their dream home — out of concrete and cinder blocks. The cement has been laid and walls are up, but the concrete skeleton lacks doors, plumbing and furnishings. Construction has stopped. Out front, on their shell of a patio, hangs the cage.

As Breno approaches the coop, Fabuloso hops frenetically. The bird and the boy lock eyes.

You couldn’t blame either one for wanting to fly away.

The Rio Olympic Golf Course is ready for the spotlight. At the center of the controversy was activist Pedro Cunha (center top), and Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes (center left). Caught in the middle was architect Gil Hanse (center right).

Brazilians adore sports, their futebol especially, but golf has failed to gain much traction. The country possesses the world’s seventh-largest economy and more land than the continental United States, but little more than 100 golf courses. Brazil has never produced a Hall of Fame golfer, or even a single winner on the top men’s and women’s professional tours. A January visit to Rio and its suburbs revealed a golf culture that’s emblematic of Brazil’s overarching problem: the rich thrive while the poor are marginalized. If you were to choose a setting for golf’s return to the Olympics after a 112-year absence, you’d be hard-pressed to pick a viable host nation more unlikely than this one.

The epicenter of Brazilian golf’s murky future lies in Barra da Tujica, a well-heeled suburb 45 minutes outside Rio’s city center. The nation’s newest course still has no official name (it will be called the Olympic Golf Course during the Games; the International Olympic Committee has yet to sign off on the course’s use of “Olympic” beyond them), but since 2011 it has been the passion project of American course designer Gil Hanse, whose presentation to the IOC won him the job over higher-wattage candidates such as Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Greg Norman.

Over the past four years Hanse estimates he has spent 280 days — about one out of five — in Rio, grooming every mound and swale on the 240-acre site. He operated within a local uprising that spawned several construction delays and considerable stress. “There were a lot of sleepless nights over how inefficient the process was,” he says while strolling along the first-hole fairway that will serve as the players’ opening target when the competition kicks off Aug. 11. “That wears you down, especially when you commit your team members, yourself, your family to being here.”

To stage these Olympics, Rio will spend more than $10 billion to build or renovate 31 venues. Hanse’s course is the most controversial. More than four years ago, a protest group called Golfe Para Quem? (Golf For Whom?) asserted that the course property was brokered in a crooked deal between the city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, and an 89-year-old billionaire developer, Pasquale Mauro, who is believed to be a major donor to Paes’s election campaign. (Both denied the accusation.) Not long ago, the Barra zip code was without a single skyscraper, but laws were reportedly amended to permit Mauro to erect 22-story condominiums. (Paes said the law always allowed for high-rises.)

Mauro says that he’s spent more than $30 million of his own money to construct the new course, clubhouse and maintenance facilities. He stands to recoup the investment from his string of condos near the first hole, where units are already being pre-sold for more than $1 million a pop. As his portfolio has expanded, Mauro has been named as a defendant in dozens of local land disputes. “There are always opportunistic people who try to take something of what we have built with the hard work of a lifetime,” Mauro wrote in an email. “I do not know anyone that has won, not a single person.”

Mauro says that he’s never played a round of golf in his life, but he now holds the deed to a golf course that is required to remain open to the public for 20 years. When the clock expires he’ll have the option to rip up the fairways. Or, as the father of four says, “It’s up to my heirs.”

Paes, Rio’s mayor since 2008, called the corruption allegations “hogwash,” and says the new course offers access that wouldn’t be possible at Rio’s existing private clubs. “This will be the first course focused on promoting the sport, and it can act as a potential tourism-facilitator,” he says.

As the land dispute simmered, a second protest group, Occupy Golf, assembled in late 2014, asserting that course construction would unlawfully wipe away two slices of environmentally protected land that offered sanctuary to dozens of endangered plants and animals. Paes confirmed that environmental laws were indeed amended for the new course. He also said most of the land was formerly a “degraded” sand pit, and that the course does not harm the surrounding ecosystem. “In fact, at the end of last year, an inspection found that the course brought environmental benefits, with an increase of biodiversity and wildlife enhancement,” he says.

On this afternoon, eight months before the Olympics, the course is green and game-ready. Six weeks later, it will host its first Olympic test event, with nine Brazilians participating (the world’s top players were invited but declined). A few hundred yards outside the gates, the former site of the Occupy Golf movement has long been cleared of the tented base camp once inhabited 24-7 by a rotating group of 23 protesters. For those activists, Brazil’s new course, and the alleged maneuverings behind it, still sting.

“Two areas inside the golf course were completely protected,” says Pedro Cunha, a dreadlocked 25-year-old economics student who helped launch Golfe Para Quem? and was also a member of Occupy Golf. “One was part of a park. That is all now a lagoon. From my perspective, golf in Brazil is a lost opportunity and a stolen dream.”

Despite a modest number of protesters, Occupy Golf generated headlines. The group camped out near the course development’s real estate offices, on a grassy median along a busy highway. Occupy Golf has a Facebook page with more than 9,000 followers. A video depicting activists being roughed up by the mayor’s security team has been viewed nearly 260,000 times.

“Many times it was physical,” Cunha says. “You see the video and you will say, ‘Oh my God. This is a war.’” Paes says that multiple guards were “punished” for their use of excessive force during that particular incident but would not elaborate.

For the better part of four years, Hanse was caught between Cunha’s crew and the mayor’s office. Whenever he was allowed to restart his tractor, the designer and his team did their best to work around existing wildlife.

“I don’t want to say this to sound flippant — it was never a concern of ours because internally, we knew we were doing the right thing,” Hanse says. “We weren’t just going to rip through this site and tear through indigenous vegetation. If you look around the golf course, a critical component of it is the natural vegetation, the sandy waste [areas] with the native grasses and the shrubs. We fought hard to protect that stuff, because we knew ultimately we wanted it to be part of the look and appearance of the golf course.”

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The course is stunning and vastly different from what you’d expect to find in a lush area like Rio. Low-lying shrubs and rugged sand areas pepper the landscape. There are few trees and sweeping views of the countryside. (The only eyesore is the clubhouse, a minimalist design by a local architect that, from a distance, resembles something out of Cold War Russia.) The layout could blend nicely along a Scottish coast or in Australia’s Sandbelt. “Up to this point, pretty much every golf course here has been like a bad Florida course — white sand, green grass and over-maintained, overwatered,” Hanse says. “I’m hopeful that golf in Brazil looks a lot more like this, that the future development of courses in this country actually embraces the natural landscape and the native vegetation, and have a sense of place that belongs in Brazil.”

As the Games approach, enthusiasm for the golf event has been mixed. Jordan Spieth and Lydia Ko, two of the game’s biggest stars, have gushed about their desire to win gold. Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel are among the high-ranking professionals who have removed themselves from Olympic consideration, and it seems inevitable that more names will drop before the torch is lit. Momentum has stalled for three reasons: a 72-hole individual stroke-play format that will create less drama than the team setups used in the Ryder and Solheim Cups; an unfavorable spot on a crowded men’s calendar, where three major championships and the Games will be held in a nine-week span; and growing concerns over Zika, the frightening mosquito-borne virus that has been linked to horrific birth defects.

It’s also unclear whether the new course will receive any meaningful traffic once the Games are over. The site will become the nation’s second public course, but sources say that green fees could run about $200 USD, which would price out most Brazilians. Paes said the course is suited to host more international competitions. This fall it will stage a Latin American PGA Tour event and a state championship. There is nothing on the docket beyond that.

Standing along a wispy patch of grass upon which he once camped in protest, Cunha offers his own view: “The legacy of the golf, it’s already written for the Rio Olympic Games. It’s not a good legacy.”

Breno has honed his swing at Japeri, with the help of Medeiros (top, center-left) and Whyte (center right).

The odds are slim that golf will gain a major foothold in Brazil, where the most popular sport is a national obsession and costs practically nothing to play. But this summer a Brazilian golf movement won’t start from scratch. It has already begun, in a most unlikely place.

Japeri is about an hour’s drive northwest of Rio and one of the most impoverished villages in the state. It is also the home of Brazil’s first — and for a few more months still only — public course. Over 12 years, the layout at Japeri was carved out of a patch of farmland by a group of caddies from a local country club who caught the golf bug and wanted their own place to play. As the men slowly worked the land, word of the project spread. Political leaders added their support, and on March 17, 2006, the nine-hole Japeri Golfe Club enjoyed a lively grand opening. It remains the lone sports venue in a town with no pools, parks, or other recreational spaces. The club employs 15 people, plus scores of part-time caddies, cooks and drivers. It is home to Brazil’s lone junior golf clinic, with 120 students enrolled.

“This is a dormitory town,” says Vicky Whyte, president of the Japeri Golfe Association. “The mothers leave on the 4:15 train to go up to be domestic servants in Rio during the day and arrive back at about 9 at night. A lot of these kids are on their own all day long, so they come here. They’re learning respect. They’re learning manners. They’re learning to be positive. They’re learning team spirit. It’s a win-win situation.”

Whyte is something of Brazilian golf royalty. Her grandfather was a founding member at Rio’s Gavea Golf Club; her father launched the Brazil Golf Association in 1958; and Whyte has held administrative roles within the game for most of her adult life. Later this year, she’ll become the first South American woman admitted to the R&A in St. Andrews.

Today, Japeri is Whyte’s primary focus. The golf clinic has proven itself effective at peeling kids off the streets and engaging them in a healthy hobby. Japeri’s students must maintain school attendance to be eligible to play. When golfers turn 18, Whyte and company help them find jobs. Japeri Golfe is a social project, but it isn’t just charity — it’s grooming real players. Six Japeri students are currently ranked among the top 12 juniors in Brazil.

“Japeri is like a concrete dream now,” says Jair Medeiros, a former country-club caddie who helped build Japeri and now works as its head instructor. “It’s amazing to have the positive feedback from parents and kids. It’s amazing where we are today.”

Like its regulars, the course itself has overcome adversity. To prepare for the 2014 World Cup, the government in 2011 rerouted a highway straight through the course, despite protests from Whyte, Medeiros and others. Four of the nine holes were lost. Unable to charge full greens fees, Japeri took a financial hit and hung on. After four years and $90,000 in grants from the R&A, the course re-opened last spring with four new holes for a full nine-hole layout. “We got through 2015, which was the worst year ever for us financially,” Whyte says. “But we are a name worldwide now. We’re starting to attract more players from Rio who maybe can’t afford the membership of a private club and just want to play some golf.”

The contrasts of Brazilian governance were on full display during Japeri’s unsuccessful bid to fend off the highway. The federal administration, which has a Sports Ministry department that permits Japeri Golfe to collect contributions from companies and private donors, allowed nearly half of the course to be destroyed in the name of infrastructural progress.

But today Japeri Golfe is back, and the club’s impact has been significant, even if the entire nation hasn’t yet galvanized behind it.

“It’s not in the culture here to do charity work the way it is in Europe and the U.S.,” Whyte says. “I get very emotional. I get very personal. People say, ‘Why do you do it?’ I say, ‘If you have to ask that question, I’m not going to answer it.’”

Breno hopes to finish the family’s dream home along with his parents, Vanilda and Francisco (top)

On an overcast afternoon, Breno Domingos slips his golf bag over his shoulder and sets off on the 20-minute walk to Japeri Golfe Club. Dust and gravel crunch under his golf spikes. Vicky Whyte paid for these shoes. Breno’s Mizuno irons and Callaway driver came by way of another donation. He sports a stylish golf shirt and hat emblazoned with a familiar logo worn by his favorite golfer, Jordan Spieth.

When Breno was 10, he met Jair Medeiros, and the Japeri teaching pro encouraged him to come out and give golf a try. The kid was hooked after a single swing (he flushed his first shot, which never hurts). Since then, Breno has been practicing and competing under the tutelage of Medeiros, Whyte and the rest of the Japeri staff.

“Our kids were always allowed on the away trips to call home in the evenings, except he would never call home,” Whyte recalls. “Why does Breno not call home? What is the matter? Finally we discovered — he said, ‘No, no. If I call my mother she’ll start to cry, and then I’ll cry, too. And that can’t happen.’ So there was a lovely little boy who’s developed into this amazing young man.”

Breno’s first sporting love was — wait for it — soccer. Most of his friends outside the golf club couldn’t comprehend why the bourgeois stick-and-ball game appealed to their buddy.

“I’d say, ‘I’m not a rich guy. Look at my origin,’” Breno says. “I knew the difficulties and that the finances are really expensive to play golf, but I had a dream.”

Breno was all-in on golf but he still had to win over his parents, who had no money for equipment. Still, it wasn’t long before they became a golf family. “He convinced us because he began to come back with all those medals and trophies,” says Breno’s father, Francisco. “And we just saw the swift change. Breno was really shy and closed, and then he came back from golf really happy. We were convinced golf was a good choice.”

Which isn’t to say success has come easy. The hardest moments came two years ago, after Francisco lost his job. Bills stacked up. The family fretted. Breno calls it the toughest time of his life. “My dad was not sleeping. He was slumped in the corner, and my mom was crying a lot,” he says.

The family is tight. They eat, sleep, laugh and weep together. Medeiros says that when Breno began golf lessons, his mother told him: “My son is a crystal. Don’t break my crystal.”

Breno is 5-foot-8 and built like a flagstick. His pocked cheeks and bright smile make him appear younger than his 19 years — right up until he pulls out his driver and busts a high draw 290 yards. His swing features funky leg action and quick-fire hips that produce surprising power. He putts like a pro — on this January afternoon he buried everything inside 10 feet. Eight weeks later he would finish second at the Buzios Open, a national amateur competition.

Whyte says Breno’s scholarship is Japeri’s biggest achievement, “because nobody in Japeri goes to university. For a start there’s no money for that, not even to pay the bus fare. And secondly, they have to work. They need to bring money in.”

Breno earned his free ride for both his accomplishments as a junior golfer and his potential to one day represent Brazil on the international stage. The university has no golf team, so each day Breno practices and teaches at Japeri. He takes classes on campus and online. Last year he aced biology, struggled with history, but came away with almost straight A’s. In four years he plans to have his degree in engineering. His transition to family breadwinner, college student and competitive golfer has gone smoothly, but his hectic schedule is demanding.

“I feel pressure, but it’s more like inner pressure,” Breno says. “The coaches, the people from Japeri all say to relax, don’t be so anxious. But that’s my nature.”

Gavea features sweet views and a taste of the private golf club experience.

While Japeri is about an hour’s drive northwest of Rio, a shorter trek due west of the city center, past the bustling beach scenes at Copacabana and Ipanema, leads to Gavea Golf and Country Club. Opened in 1921, Gavea is an idyllic retreat that runs between virgin forests, jagged cliffs and the South Atlantic Ocean. The fairways are narrow, and the views are astonishing. “Gavea” is Portuguese for “crow’s nest.” Legend says that when explorers first came upon the beach in 1502, a conquistador seated in the ship’s perch spotted a stony cliff and ordered the vessel to break for it. Today that high point is called Gavea Rock, and not far from the peak, hang-gliders leap off the hill and dot the airspace over the course.

Membership runs about $40,000 USD with $7,000 in annual dues, but Gavea is more than just a study in Brazilian opulence — it is also a stark portrait of Rio’s class disparity. Jutting up the hills across from the rocks, in clear view from the course, are tightly packed favelas, or slums, including the nation’s largest, Rocinha.

“This is a country full of contrasts,” says Arminio Fraga, a former head of the Brazilian Central Bank and current Gavea member. “It’s something we’ve been trying to work on for a long time. The average person here earns less than 20 percent of what the average person earns in the States.”

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As Brazil shells out cash to prep for the Games, it has been clobbered by its worst recession since the 1930s, further complicating construction projects. Those Olympic dollars haven’t done much for neighborhoods like Rocinha. “You could always say, ‘Yes I should’ve thrown this money into better school infrastructure.’ But Brazil is a large country — it’s a large economy,” Fraga says. “I do think the money is well spent. It is a long-term vision that one must have.”

Fraga is considered to be one of Latin America’s foremost economic experts, and his Olympic ideas include eco-friendly initiatives that are useful beyond the Games. But he’s aware that Rio has already bungled a few projects that will make his vision tougher to attain. “I think Rio should be the green capital of the world,” he says. “But people are going to see this and say, ‘The beaches are not 100 percent clean. The Guanabara Bay is very dirty.’ People here are going to be somewhat embarrassed by that.”

That much is evident. On this January weekend, Rio’s new golf course looks fantastic, but many other Olympic areas are shambolic. New roads and rails systems are half-finished, creating traffic bottlenecks on already muddled boulevards. The water off Copacabana beach reeks of sewage. Zika is spreading. And Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, currently faces impeachment for budget irregularities.

Like the city itself, Rio’s Olympics seem destined to be complicated and a little messy.

Inside Gavea’s gates the vibe is mellow and the golf is delightful. The course runs closest to the favela on the 7th tee, where only an iron fence and narrow strand of trees separate two worlds. Somewhere beyond the boundary, American rock music cuts through golf chatter. Follow the beat, and things get even more complicated.

The Rocinha favela.

The first thing to know about Rocinha is to watch your step. The main drag, paved, steep and slick, winds up the hill like threads on a rivet. One mistimed peek at the tightly stacked concrete homes, the dirt-bike moto-taxis zipping passengers in all directions, or the labyrinth of side alleys, and you could easily lose your footing. (Cement steps outside the curb offer a safer ascent.) The favela is thought to house about 106,000 inhabitants, but like most things in this neighborhood the number is unofficial. Homes have no addresses. There are no reliable city maps. Electricity, Wi-Fi and cable TV are free for most residents — snarled homemade wiring on Rocinha’s utility poles suggest rampant pirating. Breakdowns with city services are a recurring issue. Drinking water is dicey and sewage removal unsatisfactory.

To Americans, “slum” carries a certain connotation, but Rocinha is not a snapshot of abject poverty. A few certifiable mansions, including one owned by the soccer star Ronaldo, populate the base of Rochina, where it’s easiest to pop out to the city and beach. Continue climbing, and homes become increasingly dilapidated. Halfway up, houses are simple concrete and tile, but the living rooms are adorned with pricey flat screen TVs (free cable!). Many residents enjoy favela life.

“We stay happy to live here because here it’s like one big family,” says Rafael Lopes, a tour guide and handyman who has lived in Rocinha for three years. “Everybody lives together and helps everybody. If I built a new house here with my friends helping me, tomorrow I help my friends with another house or another thing. Everybody stays together.”

Drug gangs are an ongoing problem. The bosses live in homes tucked under the cover of forests that ring the slum’s perimeter. Lopes says they pay police to stay out of the way, which allows business to continue and keeps the peace. But lately the bosses have been tardy with their bribes, and gunfights are erupting at night. “I just hear it,” Lopes says. “My dream for this favela, I want the government stop with the corruption and help the city grow up.”

A visit to Rocinha makes the head spin. How do people do it? How would the city even begin to clean it up? These questions cannot be answered from a single trip up the hill. One answer that seems clear, though, is how residents feel as they peer down at the verdant course below. On this subject, Lopes echoes many of his countrymen.

“Golf is not so famous here. Just the rich people have this access,” he says. “If you have the access to play golf, maybe it changes our life. Some people here played soccer, and after this, they’re famous. I think sport is the way to change life.”

The coleiro hops in its cage as Breno gives a tour of his family’s half-finished home-to-be. Brazilians commonly hang these birds outside their residences, and even though the Domingos’ dream house is not yet complete, this is where they choose to hang their cage. It’s tempting to reach up and snatch the metaphor: Here is another creature on Lucas Antonio Dos Santos Street filled with life in its soul and talent in its fibers, desperately waiting for the door to open so it can fly away.

But Breno is not like a caged bird eager to escape at the first opportunity. Yes, he pounds range balls and studies textbooks that could one day lead him to a new life. And yes, he would love to become a professional golfer. Or an engineer. Or perhaps both. Why not? Breno would love to see the world. But none of that will happen until another job is complete.

“My dream is to finish this house,” he says standing on a concrete slab that will someday be part of a bedroom he won’t have to share with his parents. “It’s a lot of sweat and very difficult, but thank God I have my family.

“Once that’s done, then I go.”