His calm demeanor belies an adventurous nature that leads his friends to call him the Indiana Jones of golf course management. Yes, Neil Cleverly welcomes a challenge, and he has certainly had one in the past two years as he brings the Olympic golf course in Rio de Janeiro to fruition
When Neil Cleverly was hired back in May 2013 to be the Course Superintendent for the Olympic golf course in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he initially thought there was plenty of time to get things done. He had tackled start-up golf course constructions in remote areas many times before - Egypt, Dominican Republic and Mexico, to name a few. But nothing had prepared him for the challenges in Rio.
"I don't panic. I am a thinking person," said Neil, "But when I saw the equipment I had and the novice workforce I had, I thought, 'Oh my God, are we really going to do this?' It has been insane. But I love this job."
Now, two years into the job, there is no question in Neil's mind that the golf course will be ready to host an Olympic event in August 2016, despite numerous challenges.
"Neil has been dedicated to this project above and beyond what any superintendent should be asked to do," said course architect Gil Hanse. "I can't imagine we could have found anyone better for this project. His passion, tenacity and discipline have really been invaluable."
"You have to embrace the culture around you," Neil said. "It is what you make it. You can't import Florida into Rio. It just doesn't work that way. You have to be resourceful. There is no outlet here where I can go to buy everyday golf course maintenance items. Everything has to come from overseas."
It will be the first time golf will be part of the Olympic Games in more than 100 years. The plan is for individual competition, with sixty men and sixty women competing in two 72-hole events, and the whole world will be watching and judging.
"I never felt like we weren't going to make it," said Gill. "The project is too important to not get it finished. But, it took twice as long as it should have taken to build it."
The course is located on the coast outside of the country's second largest city, with saltwater tolerant paspalum greens and stiff zoysia fairways. The first test will come tentatively in November when the course at Reserva de Marapendi will host a PGA Tour Latinoamerica event.
"We will really be testing the golf course," said Neil, a 56-year-old Londoner who served in the British military before turning to golf course management twenty-five years ago. "We want to see how it plays. If we have to make minor changes, we'll have a year to get it done."
Neil is focusing on two things: getting the course ready for the return of golf to the Olympics after a 112-year absence and spreading the goodwill of golf to the people of Brazil.
Both are demanding but, if anyone can handle the tasks, it's the ex-military man; he exudes a poise that comes from his years of experience.
GolfDom caught up with Neil recently to talk about the course, the politics of the region, his staffing challenges and the legacy of the Olympic golf course.
GD: How are preparations going in Brazil?
NC: The weather's great, but flying from 100OF down to 32OF at night is no fun. Plus, there are politics involved; there always will be, no matter the site. It just happens to be the Rio Olympic golf course. Obviously, people are interested, and they are entitled to be. Golf not being in the Olympics for over one hundred years is a big deal.
And, after the Olympics, the course will become a public facility for Brazil, which has grown over the last decade to become the second largest golf-playing nation in South America, behind Argentina. Brazil has more than 100 golf courses and 25,000 golfers.
The course is made up of zoysia with paspalum greens. How is that combination coming together?
It's an interesting choice; it's never mixed before as far as I know. Zoysia Zeon is different physiologically to paspalum. I've worked with paspalum for the past fourteen years. I've done other Zoysia Diamond projects and Emerald projects, but this is a new variety for me.
Generally, zoysia is a good grass, but it's not the magic bullet grass. Grasses on this planet Earth are designed to be placed in, or grown in, climates that are conducive to good growing conditions. It happens to be one of the better grasses in that particular area. There's no question about that, it shows, with very little input.
What kind of chemical programme are you using?
There's no excessive use of chemicals. I'm not allowed to use herbicides, so there's a lot of handpicking of weeds.
There are ways and means of growing grass beyond what you learned in school. You have to experiment sometimes. On this particular project, I experimented a lot and I've come up with a formula for that. I mix and match some of my own 'juju juice.'
Another challenge for me is the products that are available locally. It's not an area for companies to stock and supply what I require for golf maintenance.
When tournament time comes, what kind of course will the players and audience see; a lush and green course or brown, fast and firm?
Eventually we are probably going to go for a block-mow look. We are not going to be overly green, but we aren't going to be overly brown.
At some point someone will encourage me to do what they want to do, but it has to be a collective responsibility as to how we are going to present it. No matter what, we will present a golf course that will be worthy of 112 years of missed golf.
What kind of local crew have you hired to work on the course?
The crew that I employ, sometimes they don't last because they don't like weed-picking 24/7. The attrition rate is about 30 percent a month, and you have to keep training these guys. The ones who do last look at me like I'm crazy when I arrive at 4.00am or 5.00am or when I'm doing experimental things.
I get a kick out of it in the morning when I look at them strolling in, and it's like a deer in the headlights when I've written things on the board, but they really don't know why we are doing it. I'm trying to create a whole new turf school for them in terms of understanding turf and why we do things at certain times of year.
So the whole process is a culture shock for them?
When I told them that we would be sleeping at the course they kind of looked at each other, asking "why?" I had to explain to them that we aren't mowing at 7.00am, people are playing at 7.00am.
It's a massive culture shock for them, but I'm very humbled by the group I have. Some of my crew travel four hours on a bus to come to work and take the same trip home that evening.
And my key staff, Fabian Espinola (deputy superintendent) - Sofia Urrets (senior irrigation tech) and Suelen Santos (administrative assistant) - are vital to the success of the project.
Will there be any upcoming events to prepare the crew for tournament play?
We will have a test event before the Olympics. It will test the golf course - and probably my sanity - at that point. You really start to stress because I've got a bunch of guys and all they've done is weed pick or pick grass or shave things with bunker rakes. Now I've got to introduce them to the entirely new concept of tournament preparation!
Where on the course do you think the professionals will struggle the most?
We have our "Amen Corner" that plays around holes 2, 3, 4 and 5. It circumnavigates the lake that feeds the irrigation.
On the second hole, you have a long tee shot to a skinny landing area. On three, you drive across the water, and it's a teaser hole - that's a short par 4. So they can drive it but, if they hook it left, they're in the water and, if they slice or fade it right, they are in the jungle.
I think the pros are going to love it, I really do. You're never going to please everybody in this business, but these guys are going to love it.
What is the culture of golf in Brazil and how do the locals view the sport?
Brazil has a quiet pedigree of wealthy businessmen who play golf. They don't have a pedigree of anything like public golf. Some people don't even think it is a sport in Brazil. That's the mentality we have to change. I can't do it on my own.
There are people within Brazil who don't want the Olympic golf course to be a success and, unfortunately, social media allows them to mobilise quicker than they ever would have done before.
That being said, what do you think the future of golf can be in Brazil? How will the Olympics impact the sport in the country?
That's what I like when I talk to people. It's not just about the golf course; it's what's going to happen afterward.
Will we get golf tourism beyond this or before this? Yes, but they will come once and they won't come again.
There has to be repeat business, and the locals are your repeat business. That doesn't mean it's a private club, it means that it's open to the public at a reasonable fee that they can pay, but they need to target the kids to encourage a progressive learning curve for the game of golf.
If it is made available in terms of finance, education and equipment, there shouldn't be any reason why there couldn't be a Brazilian major champion inside of twenty-five years. It would take that long because it is a juvenile sport in a well-known country.
Looking into the future, what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind for this course after the Olympics have gone?
It would be a crying shame if the legacy of this golf course gets to the point where the Olympic Games are played on it successfully, but the course goes to rack and ruin. If that happens, a lot of hard work would be wasted. I think it would be harmful for the country, definitely harmful for golf.
This will be a legacy golf course, which will be handed over to the city of Rio de Janeiro, and we need to promote it that way from this point forward. The only way we can do that is to provide education and equipment to the junior level free of charge. I openly say that; I don't mince my words.
It needs to be given free and provided free of charge. We are not going to get anywhere, now or in the future, on this golf course or with golf, if we don't provide that kind of education.