Golf is making its return to the Summer Olympics this week after a 112-year absence, and it is being played on a new course where golfers and spectators alike are in for a unique experience.
The golf course is called Reserva de Marapendi, and it was built on sandy and swampy land within a coastal nature preserve in Barra, a western suburb of Rio. As such, there are a variety of animals that wander nearby, sometimes even onto the course.
"It's incredible — capybaras that nobody has even heard of," Bob Condron, golf venue media director, told VOA. "They are kind of like a big beaver, a big rat; birds, owls, alligators. You know, it's like a zoo out here. And it's very pleasing to look at. It's a course that's just a jewel."
Capybaras are semi-aquatic animals native to South America and are the largest rodents in the world, standing about 61 centimeters and weighing up to 45 kilograms.
“They chew down on the grass at night,” Mark Johnson, director of international agronomy for the PGA Tour told The National Post. “There are about 30 to 40 of them inside the course perimeter, but they live here and we play golf here, we co-exist.”
Condron said that while there was some controversy over building the course at the site, they took a lot of precautions to preserve the surroundings, including the habitat for the various animals.
Bob Condron, Olympic golf venue media director (P. Brewer/VOA)
From parts of the course you can see the Atlantic Ocean, and from other areas you can even spot the Olympic Athletes Village far off in the distance.
Condron said it's interesting that it is in Rio where golf is making its return to the Olympics, because the sport is not widely played in Brazil. In fact, the top-ranked professional Brazilian golfer is Adilson Da Silva at No. 288.
Reserva de Marapendi is a par 71 and will measure 7,128 yards (6,518 m) for the men and 6,245 yards (5,710 m) for the women.
Australian golfer Marcus Fraser told VOA after practice that he really likes the course.
Australian golfer Marcus Fraser (P. Brewer/VOA)
"Very similar to what we have on the sandbelt, and the sandbelt is probably regarded as [having] some of the best golf courses in the world, and I think the course sets up to everyone," he said. "I think it gives everyone a chance, and there's a lot of variety there, which I think is fantastic."
Fraser added that Olympic golf officials can move the tees around, depending on the wind direction, and he thinks having a lot of different options is the most important part of the course.
Thai golfer Kiradech Aphibarnrat told VOA the wind will definitely be a factor.
"It's key, but the course is very nice. It's in good condition. The greens are very fast. There's a lot of slope on the greens. You just have to hit your ball in the fairways and keep in a safe place."
‘Growing the game’
The men's field is not as strong as many had hoped, with about 20 golfers — including the world's top four-ranked players — deciding to skip the Olympics because of health concerns given the Zika virus, and other personal issues.
"Some had young families. Some had time problems, schedule problems, appearance problems," said Condron. "You know, that's just the way it is. But this is a good field. We have Masters winners, PGA, British Open, U.S. Open winners. Almost 100 percent of the women are here. I don't think we had any dropouts."
Thai golfer Kiradech Aphibarnrat practices on the Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.(P. Brewer/VOA)
Both Aphibarnrat and Fraser said they are excited to be here representing their countries in golf's return to the Summer Games.
"We need to do everything we possibly can to keep growing the game of golf and this is a huge step for golf, and hopefully after this it will continue to grow at future Olympics," Fraser said.
Condron said he believes the golfers who are skipping the Olympics may regret their decision.
"Those guys that aren't here, they are going to miss something great. And I think they're going to think about this in two years and say, 'You know, I wish I could have gone and fought for my country and fought for the gold medal.'"
For the first time in more than a century, golf will tee off Thursday at the Olympics with the men's competition. The women will play next week.
The Reserva de Marapendi Olympic course will be open to the public after the Summer Games.