JON KIGER AUG 14 | Despite having the eyes of the world on the Olympic Golf Course in Rio, superintendent Neil Cleverly spent some time with me on Saturday of the Men's competition to share his thoughts on preparing for and hosting this historic event.
JK: You've had the course pretty much to yourself for the last three years, what's it like finally having the golfers and the spectators here for the Olympics?
NC: "It's good to see that the golf course is being played as a golf course instead of just being maintained as a golf course. When the first flag went in and the first tee markers were put out during the test event in March you could see the value of the golf course. You could see the design in its true form. Now the Olympics are here you see the Olympic flags and the Olympic tee markers out and it brings to reality what we've been doing for the last three years. So it's great to see spectators walking the golf course, and the pros doing what they do best and that's play golf on a great golf course."
JK: Tell us a little about your anticipation and expectations of this particular piece of land and what it meant to build the golf course here.
NC: "The expectations from everybody when they realized that golf was back in the Olympic games were that this parcel of land lends itself to having a great-designed golf course. And this is a great design. Gil Hanse and his crew put a golf course together and took it from paper to reality -- and we all had a hand in it from Day One from construction, to grassing, to grow in, to where we are now. Did we expect the golf course to be as good now as it is? I did. There were some others that had some difference of opinions but we all saw the value of having this golf course here and we're seeing it right now."
Did we expect the golf course to be as good now as it is? I did."
JK: Were you at the first tee for the first group (on Thursday) or was there work to be done elsewhere?
NC: "Unfortunately I was working on the golf course when the first tee shot was struck. I think the organizers got it right. The Brazilian golfer Adilson da Silva -- great guy, I've met him a few times -- had the honor of opening the first round and that was great move by the organizers."
Adilson da Silva takes the first tee shot of the 2016 Olympic Games. (Alex Miceli photo)
JK: I heard from some other members of the crew that when that inaugural tee shot was struck and the word came over the radios at 7:30 that folks did pause to realize what an historic time this was for golf. Explain a little more about how you and the crew felt at that particular time.
NC: "It was a great sigh of relief when the first golf ball was hit from the first tee. Almost relief more than anything else that we got where we needed to get to for the first round and the golf course looked great! (Leading up to the Olympics) the weather wasn't really paying attention to what we wanted but we got through it. It's been quite a bizarre winter in Rio considering what the locals are telling me, but we got through it and now we're on Day Three (Saturday.)"
JK: You worked with mainly local workers until the volunteers arrived. Tell us a little about the impact the volunteers are having now that they are here.
NC: "My crew comes from zero turf background. There's no turf school in this country. Everything they knew I taught them to do with the help of other people that I've been in the business with for a number of years. The crew jelled and became a team prior to the tournament, so we've been maintaining this golf course as best we can with what we had.
The crew jelled and became a team prior to the tournament..."
Obviously the volunteers are required to maintain the golf course in tournament condition in a very short space of time. The number of crew that I have are not the numbers that are required for this tournament -- or any tournament. So we definitely had to have volunteers from the industry itself -- many from Latin America, some Europeans, and some Americans. It was vitally important that we had people that understand golf and understand what we are trying to achieve and what we need to do. And that's what we have right now."
Volunteers - many from Latin America, Europe and America - at the ready.
JK: We are three days into the Men's competition. Do you anticipate any changes in your operation as you look ahead to next week and the Women's competition?
NC: "Not really. We have the program where we need it to be. The only thing we can't control is the weather, so we adapt the program to whatever weather we get. The golf course should play the same in terms of parity between men and women.
The organizers will place the tee markers where the ladies will hit their tee shots and second shots in parity with the men, hopefully. Pin positions will more or less be the same where the men are playing them now -- just again to get parity between both ladies' and men's tours."
JK: What have you enjoyed the most about your time in Brazil?
NC: "Training the crew in terms of work because it's been seven days a week work. I've enjoyed seeing them learn how to use a machine or understand why we do certain jobs at certain times. Even weed picking -- they never got it, they never understood it -- but it was unfortunately one of those necessary evils that you get on a golf course when you're not allowed to use any herbicides. Having a crew now after three years doing what they're doing so well. They're my heroes. That's what I've enjoyed."
Full crew meeting before the Saturday afternoon shift at the Olympic Golf Course maintenance facility.
JK: What is the most meaningful thing you'll take away from the experience?
NC: "The willingness of a lot of people who didn't understand golf -- I'm talking about the crew again --being willing to work long hours in the rain, in the sun, in the heat doing what they knew nothing about. And then seeing them enjoy what they do. That's one of the lessons I've learned from this particular task, having been around the world in other countries doing the same thing training other people on different golf courses. Achieving what we've achieved in respect to how difficult it has been is a takeaway point also."
Afternoon downtime for the crew. "Zero turf background" among the local staff. "They're my heroes..." - Neil Cleverly
The technical support staff, including several specialists from Jacobsen.