It was during a tough economic spell for North American golf architects in the early 1930s that the design company of Thompson, Jones and Thompson Ltd made the ambitious move to branch out into golf projects in Brazil, of all places.
The legendary Stanley Thompson, principal in the firm, most likely obtained the work through his brother in law, a director of the Brazilian Traction company, and both Stanley and his brother Bill were only too pleased to utilize the talents of a junior partner, young Robert Trent Jones, in the South American venture.
British railway engineers formed the São Paulo Golf Club at the start of the 20th century. Twenty years later, club members would be playing one of the finest courses on the continent when work on the layout was completed.
As the “Saturday Evening Post” in the United States would later report, Stanley Thompson “was remembered as the Canadiano who, in 1935, arranged for a festive dedication of a combination golf course, air field and polo grounds. During the ceremony, the planes flew so low that the horses bolted and knocked down an admiral who was personally representing President Getulio Vargas.”
The course today is completely hemmed in by housing and industrial buildings on all sides as the city of São Paulo has expanded over time. The surroundings don’t detract though from a classic layout that has stood the test of time very well. Tree-lined fairways are draped over an aesthetically pleasing tract of land where water plays its part in proceedings on the loop around holes 11 to 13 as well as at the conclusion to both nines on holes 9 and 18.
The Brazil São Paulo 500 Years Open was held here in 2000, the second of two European PGA Tour events held in the country that year to mark the discovery of Brazil by Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500. Padraig Harrington lost in a playoff at the other tournament in Rio de Janeiro but he won the São Paulo competition by two strokes with a 14 under par total of 270.
Built in 1932 by Stanley Thompson, the top Canadian architect, you might say this course is a classic.
If you’re not too familiar with golf course architecture you might not know that Stanley Thompson built three of the top five courses in Canada, including St. George’s, Jasper Park and Banff Springs. In Brazil he built four courses, São Paulo, Gavea, Itanhanga and Teresópolis.
In the beginning of the 20th century the penal school of golf course design was still strong and you’ll find that in his philosophy: “As soon as a player departs from the straight and narrow path, some penalty should follow.”
When playing São Paulo one needs to keep that in mind and choose the shots wisely because missing a fairway will normally lead to a bogey or worse. For this reason there are several holes where it’s better to leave your driver in the bag and hit something that will find the fairway.
Number one is a good example, a short par four with OB all the way down the left and trees on the right. A driver may find the green or lead you to an early double bogey so be conservative and play a hybrid or a long iron and try to start with a nice par.
A word of advice, this is the course that you should not be ashamed of playing conservative golf, ball placement is way more important than distance.
Number 5 is an excellent downhill par four that doglegs left, aim at the right bunker and shape the ball right to left, that will leave you with a mid-iron to a large green.
Nine is my favorite hole on the front, a 167-yard par 3 with a lake from tee to green and very little room on the right for a lay-up. The wind here is a big factor so check the top of the trees and good luck you will need it.
From eleven to sixteen everything works very well, you will be at the heart of the property with pleasant lakes, some hills, beautiful trees and almost no noise, so enjoy the challenging par 4 eleventh and the beautiful par 3 twelfth.
Things get a little more complicated at 14, a long par four dogleg left where you again should aim at the right bunker and shape your ball back to the center. The green is big but it is harder to find than it looks.
Number 15 is the longest and most difficult of the par 3s. Measuring 211 yards with a diagonal right to left green protected by bunkers – only a very good shot will find the dance floor. A par here is almost a birdie, especially with a back pin placement.
Number 16 is a good risk reward hole, a perfect drive will leave you 60 yards from a green that is raised and placed a little higher than the fairway, don’t miss right because an up and down here is very unlikely.
The last hole is probably the best finishing hole in the country, a 400-yard par four with a big lake on the right starting 160 yards away from the green. You can challenge the lake with your driver or lay up to a wider fairway before the lake. The green is big but it’s divided into three distinct parts so it is imperative to hit your shot to the correct one because I am sure that you don’t want to end your round with a three putt.