Mixing swing and samba might be a challenge for a musician. But more and more golfers are discovering that the rhythms unique to courses throughout Brazil suit their swing just fine. That’s not to say that every sports enthusiast in this soccer-crazed country is ready to trade in his Pelé poster for a sleeve of Titleists. Still, golf, once
associated primarily with Brazil’s affluent class, is not-so-quietly gaining in popularity. The boom is reminiscent of the tennis explosion that the country experienced in the early 1990s, when Jaime Oncins and Luiz Mattar carried Brazil to the Davis Cup semifinals. However, the surge in local participation, course development and golf as a tourist draw in Brazil can’t be pinned on the feats of professional standouts. As much as anything, it’s a matter of golf being in the right place at the right time.
The country’s economy is strong, opening windows of opportunity for those who once couldn’t afford to play. Brazil’s rich landscapes and near-flawless tropical climate are perfect golf ingredients. And at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, golf will make its Olympic comeback after a 112-year hiatus.
“This is what was missing for the sport to develop here,” says Rachid Orra, president of the Brazilian Golf Confederation (CBG). “Brazilian golf will reach a new level. The world will be watching the sport develop right here.”
Make no mistake—Brazil will be ready for its turn in the golf spotlight.
It is estimated that some 22 million tourists make their travel plans around a golf destination. More Brazilian resorts than ever are capitalizing on this trend, with world-class layouts popping up everywhere. Championship courses throughout the country are being constructed to compete with international destinations in Europe and the Caribbean—and not by just any golf course developers.
None other than Jack Nicklaus—he of the all-time-record 18 Grand Slam golf titles and an equally successful career as a course architect—has an office in Brazil, from where his development team launches projects all over the country. In addition, famed U.S. architect Dan Blankenship, who already has developed several courses in Brazil, now lives there.
Golf enthusiasts can find 110 courses in Brazil—20 of which are part of tourist destinations, with another 15 connected to hotels and resorts. A 2008 survey by consulting firm KPMG reported that some 30 additional golf projects were in development in Brazil.
Golf TravelGolf Bahia
“Brazil has the potential to become a top golf destination in the southern hemisphere,” the survey notes.
With so much buzz around the sport, it came as no surprise that Brazil received the Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year 2010 Award from the International Association of Golf Tourism Operators (IAGTO), besting 20 other countries, including Germany, Costa Rica, India and Switzerland. The award is granted by a panel comprised of 100 journalists from 25 countries and organized by the International Golf Travel Writers Association (IGTWA).
The honor was the culmination of tireless work by the National Golf Tourism Bureau—an arm of CBG that involves tour operators, golf courses, hotels and airlines—in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism.
Moreover, it was a sign that golf in Brazil is here to stay.
Go for the Green
The northeastern state of Bahia is known for a deep-fried delicacy called acarajé, which is made of black-eyed peas and cooked in palm oil. Another term you’ll hear in Bahia these days is “tacos,” but it has nothing to do with the region’s cuisine.
“Tacos,” the Portuguese word for golf clubs, are being wielded in record numbers throughout Bahia, which is known for its gorgeous weather and some of the country’s most exquisite and challenging courses. Five resorts have built demanding and picturesque tracts that will entertain golfers of all levels; another four courses are in the works.
Terravista Golf Course’s Michael Rumpf-Gail:“There’s data to support the fact that golf tourists spend between 50 percent and 100 percent more than the non-golfer”
Comandatuba Ocean Course, which opened at the end of 2000 at Hotel Transamérica Comandatuba Island in southern Bahia, was the first of the world-class resort courses in the region. Designed by Blankenship, it plays some 7,000 yards from the back tees. But length isn’t the hallmark of this ecological wonder that attracts golfers from all over the globe. Nestled between the ocean and mangroves, the exotic course is known for its wildlife—from monkeys and lizards to foxes and rare bird species. Large and daunting bunkers surround the velvet-smooth greens, placing an added emphasis on precise shot-making.
Sand also plays an integral role at the Brian Costello-designed Costa do Sauípe Golf Links, about 60 minutes north of Bahia’s capital, Salvador. This 6,900-yard layout was built on and around the sand dunes—and amid the natural vegetation—that border the Bahia coastline. The course, which hosted the 2005 Brazilian Open, rests on elevated ground, giving players grand views of the Atlantic Ocean on every hole.
In the posh southern region of the state, golfers can find the South American version of Pebble Beach at Terravista Golf Course in Trancoso. The first nine holes at this exclusive development are carved out of the lush foliage inherent to the native rainforest. On the back nine, golfers emerge from the jungle to play a series of holes that run along the scenic 130-foot cliffs that form the “Discovery Coast”—the area where Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese in 1500. Perfect placement is required at holes like No. 14, which features a tight landing area dangerously near the edge of the cliff. At the signature par-4 17th hole, golfers launch their second shots from an elevated fairway lie into a valley green, surrounded by bunkers and rainforest. Michael Rumpf-Gail, president of the development, proudly calls Terravista one of the best-known courses in Brazil. His master plan calls for yet another 18-hole design down the road.
President of CBG, Rachid Orra:"Brazilian golf will reach a new level. The world will be watching the sport develop right here."
Terravista respects the history and tradition of golf right down to the game’s wardrobe requirements. Even when temperatures reach 100-plus degrees during the summer, appropriate attire is required; players must wear properly tucked in polo shirts, with pants or knee-length shorts.
If you’d rather wear something more casual, then check out Iberostar Praia do Forte Golf Club in Praia do Forte, about 55 miles from Salvador and about 12 miles from Costa do Sauípe. Designed by P.B. Dye, son of legendary golf architect Pete Dye, Praia do Forte’s 6,800-yard layout presents players with a classic links challenge. Built on the seaside sand dunes with minimal foliage, open fairways and deep (and numerous) bunkers, the course is vulnerable to strong winds, giving it a true British Open feel—Bahia-style. The stunning final three holes, built along the ocean, may be the best finishing stretch in South America.
Service at Brazil’s top tourist spots is generally outstanding—and when it comes to golf, guests can expect nothing but the best. “There’s data to support the fact that golf tourists spend between 50 percent and 100 percent more than the non-golfer,” says Rumpf-Gail. That is easy to explain since spending is not limited to greens fees but also includes everything from golf cart rentals, caddies, balls, hats and polo shirts. And that’s just to get through 18 holes. What about the 19th hole? After all, a day at the course isn’t complete without a fine cigar and a cocktail.
If the family wants to come to Brazil, but not to the golf course, players have nothing to worry about. The resorts in the area offer plenty of activities for children and, yes, golf widows—including an afternoon at the hotel spa.
If business takes you to downtown São Paulo—and you're aching to sneak in a few holes—don't despair. Hotel Transamérica may not have the lush layouts available in Bahia, but it can satisfy your golf fix with its abbreviated par-3 course. The three-hole layout—85, 90 and 94 yards—has been a source of entertainment for businessmen, international stars and Formula 1 drivers. For those looking to work on their short game, the resort's mini-golf course guarantees plenty of putting fun.
In the Swing
Much like any other sport, the only way for golf to develop in Brazil is by attracting more players. There’s no better place to start than the driving range, where new golfers can develop their skills and seasoned golfers can tweak their swing. There are now 12 driving ranges in Brazil, half of them located in São Paulo.
One way to make golf more attractive to new players is by developing a tournament calendar so that those curious about the sport have an opportunity to see first-hand how exciting the game can be. The good news in Brazil is that such a calendar is in the works. In 2011, the country will host four tournaments as part of the Brazilian Golf Circuit, which serves as qualifying for the Brazil Open. The Open, first played in 1945, draws the best players in South America—and beyond. Over the years, such golf legends as Sam Snead, Gary Player, Ray Floyd and Hale Irwin have won the tournament.
In May, Rio de Janeiro hosts the third edition of HSBC LPGA Brazil Cup. This tournament, part of the LPGA Tour, promises to attract the world’s best female golfers competing for more than $700,000 in prize money—making this the largest and most important golf event in South America.
“Golf is going through a unique moment in Brazil,” says Alan Adler, director of Brasil1 Esporte. “We’re certain that the CBG Tour, Brazil Open and the HSBC LPGA Brazil Cup will contribute to the growth and consolidation of the sport in Brazil.”
There is only one problem with the rise of golf in Brazil—it seems that someone forgot to tell the sport’s equipment manufacturers. To date, there is no golf apparel manufactured in Brazil, which forces clubs and equipment to be imported. At prices between US$400 and US$2,000 for a beginner set of used clubs, golf, to some extent, remains a sport in Brazil for those with the means to afford it.
Still, with locals and tourists clearly in the swing, golf is right on course in Brazil to reach more people than ever as the upcoming decade unfolds.