Estrada da Gávea 800,
São Conrado 22610,
Rio de Janeiro,
- +55 21 3323 6050
15 km SW of Rio de Janeiro city centre
As the guest of a member or when resident at certain local hotels
Gávea is Rio de Janeiro’s most prestigious golf club, dating back to 1921 when it was founded as Rio de Janeiro Golf Club by a group a group of expatriate technicians and managers of Companhia Tramway, Light & Power, holding company of The Rio de Janeiro City Improvements Company Ltd.
Five years after its formation, the club became known as Gávea Golf & Country Club, bringing in Arthur Morgan Davidson from Cruden Bay Golf Club as its first professional. The Scotsman was instrumental in having an 18-hole layout in play by the spring of 1929 and he would remain at the club for twenty years.
Stanley Thompson spent six months in Brazil during 1935, during which time he designed the new course at nearby Itanhangá and helped with the design of Teresópolis, a new course being built for the Guinle family in the mountains to the north of Rio. His third assignment was the remodelling of several holes at Gávea, adding new tees on #1, #15 and #18 and building new greens at #2 and #17.
The course is located in the shadow of Pedra da Gávea – an enormous rocky out crop that looms over the property – and it’s a short track measuring just over 6,000 yards from the back tees. It may not be that long but distance from tee to green is not important on such a strategic little charmer.
Gávea’s outward half twists and turns over hilly terrain before crossing a main road to begin the back nine. Holes 10 to 14 are laid out on a small parcel of land adjacent to the São Conrado beach, where a sizeable lake also comes into play. The busy main highway is then crossed again to complete the round adjacent to the fairways of holes 1 to 9.
The layout has been upgraded in recent times, notably by Dan Blankenship during the 1990s, when he redid the greens on holes 1, 2, 8, 9 and 15, constructed new fairway bunkers on a few holes, and installed the small pond in front of the 15th green. Gil Hanse, whilst working on the Olympic Course, remodelled the opening five holes on the back nine, creating large sandy waste areas and lessening the impact of the water on the playing strategy. He also reworked several greens in the main paddock to allow for more pin placements on these holes.
Gávea has hosted the Brazil Open sixteen times since 1945, most recently in 2014, and winners have included Billy Casper (1959), Peter Alliss (1961) and Gary Player (1972 & 1974). Brazilian golfing legend Mario Gonzalez, head pro at the club for thirty-five years, claimed four of his eight Open titles (and five of his nine Amateur victories) on home ground and he also beat Billy Casper by three strokes here in the very first head-to-head televised match in the series Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf back in 1961.
Special thanks to author Marcelo Stallone for gifting a copy of his book Gavea Golf & Country Club, published to mark the club’s 80th anniversary in 2001, which greatly assisted with composing this article.
As humans, we like to categorise things and attach labels to them. Golf is much the same, whether it be the type of shot you hit, the ball you play or the course you walk. Having wrestled with it for some time, I have found categorising Gávea Golf Club in Rio De Janeiro particularly difficult. It is by the sea but I wouldn’t say it was a links design. It is tree lined and perfectly manicured but I wouldn’t say it was a parkland course. It is measures short in terms of yardage but long in difficulty. Gávea is as unique, vibrant and diverse as the streets and jungle covered mountains that encircle it.
First and foremost, the club is steeped in history and is one of the oldest and most prestigious golf clubs in Brazil. Originally laid out by a group of British golfers in the early 1920’s, it was later re-designed by Stanley Thompson (one of four of his projects in Brazil) in the 1930’s and it is then that it really took the shape of the course we see today. Gil Hanse then further modified the course (particularly the greens) in more recent times.
You could be forgiven for imagining yourself on the set of Jurassic Park while standing on the first tee and looking to your left. Jungle swathes cover large portions of the mountainous landscape and the air is alive with the sounds of wildlife. Take a look to the right though and you will see and hear the sights and sounds of one of the most bustling cities on earth. The contrast of the two backdrops is as mind blowing as it is dramatic. The layout wanders up and down the side of the iconic craggy barrier of mountains that pin most of the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro to the Eastern coastline of Brazil. From the top of Pedra da Gávea, hang gliders take off and soar above the course sharing the sky with the Frigate birds before eventually descending on to the beach beyond the holes on the back nine. Looking at the course from the clubhouse (and I’m sure from those hang gliders also), it makes you wonder just how anyone ever imagined a golf course could be built on such ground. Equally, one could be persuaded that the course has been here for thousands of years as it merges so beautifully with its surroundings.
I felt the course played in three distinct phases. The initial nine holes wrap around the clubhouse and take you from sea level up to the highest parts of the property (with some of the most enchanting views of any golf course I have seen in the world). The two par 3’s (No’s.6 and 8) in the middle of the front nine are particularly dramatic, No.6 for its extraordinary sheer green perched on the top of a precipitous outcrop and No.8 for the huge vertical drop between tee and green. After No.9, you then cross the highway to play the coastal holes which are much flatter (but no less interesting) and surround a large lake. The final four holes come back across the road and tuck themselves at the foot of the hills. No.17 is particularly dramatic with a near 100ft drop awaiting any shots missing the green by no more than a couple of metres left.
Pound for pound, I would say Gávea is one of the toughest courses I’ve played for such a short yardage (just over 6000 yards from the back tees). Hitting short clubs off the tee, although initially providing a greater margin for error, only serves to crank up the pressure on what are already tight and punitive approaches. It really is a course where you have to play to your strengths. Once on the green, you will rarely find a flat putt and unless your proximity to the hole is consistently good, you will find yourself having more 3 putts than 1 putts.
Brazil is a wonderful place and Rio is as hectic as it gets but Gávea Golf Club is an oasis within the madness. Golf course design to me is a form of art and although provided with an excellent set of ingredients, Thompson has once again displayed a level of imagination and craft here that is truly remarkable.
A busy main road runs through the course. Tall apartment buildings are on two sides of the course. Another side of the course is a stone’s throw from a beautiful beach and the roaring Atlantic Ocean. The outstanding feature viewed from the course is the tall, steep, flat-faced, sheer mountain called Padre da Gavea. Obviously this magnificent beauty is why the club is called Gavea. You get up close and personal to Padre da Gavea as you walk uphill to the 7th green.
The score card presents only a 6,027-yard par 69 course. But do not be fooled, because there is a little bit of everything here. The terrain is two extremes. After relatively flat holes at 1 and 2, the course becomes extremely hilly through the 9th hole. Then you use a tunnel under the highway for dead flat holes 10-14. Coming off the 14th green it is back through the tunnel, past the 2nd green and clubhouse to the 15th tee. The rest of the course is fairly hilly.
There are forests, water, doglegs, forced carries, ditches (burns), very steep uphill and downhill shots, very elevated greens, large greens, small greens, steep falloffs around greens, only 62 bunkers, sand waste areas, and monkeys in trees. Pin point accuracy on approach shots is a must at Gavea.
The picture of hole #17 has the two most memorable aspects at Gavea. In the background you can clearly see the size and steepness of Pedra da Gavea. The other aspect is the severe 25-foot falloff immediately at the left side of the green. In 2017, Gil’s partner, Jim Wagner, redesigned greens 6, 16, and 17 to make them more playable. I would hate to have played to the 17th green pre-Wagner.
I’d played the Rio Olympic course early in the morning then looked in at Itanghangá to have a look at the renovation work being done there on the way to Gávea so my round here would see me look at fifty-four holes on the first day of my short visit to Brazil. I’d corresponded with David Davis before playing here and I’d read Javier Pintos’s review so I pretty much knew what to expect on arrival (apart from the crushing afternoon humidity). If anything, both guys undersold the club and the course because, as far as playing experiences go, it’s right up there with many of the best that I’ve been fortunate enough to sample.
For a start, it’s such a unique property, squeezed into a tiny estate at the foot of some monolithic mountains that literally tower over the fairways – space is so tight a few of the holes are set out on the other side of the coastal highway, next to the beach, which actually brings about a welcome change of tempo before you return to complete the round in the main area around the clubhouse. And just to add another surreal touch to the situation, the biggest favela in Brazil at Rocinha is built into a steep hillside just over a kilometre away!
I’ve seen life-sized statues outside clubhouses at a number of places I’ve visited (no names, no pack drill) and inwardly cringed at most of them as they’ve been erected in memory of somebody (often from another land) with only a tenuous link to the club (to my mind). On the other hand, the sculpture of Mario Gonzalez (who only passed away last year, aged 96) close to the first tee is a fitting tribute to a much-respected man who’s rightly regarded as The Father of Brazilian Golf and his golfing legacy lives on at Gávea through his three sons, Mario, Jaime and Rafael, with the latter two leading teaching professionals.
Out on the course, holes on the front nine are arranged according to the very difficult landscape so there are four brilliant par threes to be played (at #2, #4, #6 and #8) and each one of these short holes is as good as, if not better, than the one before. It’s a tough walk (though I was in a buggy, thankfully) as the fairways rise and fall sharply with the tight contours. Probably the pick of the holes on the outward half is the par four 5th, rated stroke index 1, which plays from a very elevated tee down to a fairway that’s bisected by a gully before rising uphill to a green on the other side.
The work that Gil Hanse has done in the small, flat enclosure housing holes 10 to 14 is outstanding, as he’s re-shaped the lake and fitted the holes around it in a more sensible way, as well as introducing long sand scrapes on either side of fairways to emphasize their close proximity to the beach, which is literally on the other side of the wall that runs along the 11th and 12th holes. Gil’s also reworked some of the greens in the main arena on the other side of the road, though the jury’s still out for me on the 15th, with its pronounced mound in the middle of the putting surface.
My host at the club was author Marcelo Stallone, the 3-time club champion who represented Brazil twice in the Eisenhower Trophy in his amateur prime and who still competes in the R&A Senior Amateur Championship. After our round, Marcelo very kindly invited my colleague Brian and I back to his apartment overlooking the beach holes to present us with a couple of his books: a biography of Brazilian golfing legend Mario Gonzalez and a history of Gávea Golf & Country Club which was published in 2001 to mark the club’s 80th anniversary of formation.
What a way to round off an afternoon of golf, with a cold beer in hand looking out from Marcelo’s high rise apartment along the narrow strand of the Praia de São Conrado – it really doesn’t get much better than this in Brazil! But, we had no time to dally as we’d an evening flight to catch down to São Paulo so, reluctantly, we had no choice other than to sup up sharpish then head off along the road past Copacobana beach (as you do) to the airport for the next leg of our short Brazilian golfing adventure…
I had heard Gavea GC was a great Club but had little to no info about the course. And sometimes this is good because you don't create false or extra expectations and just play the course to afterwards evaluate it, review it and make your own conclusions.
I played it twice furing the Riolize Fam Trip last week, first time with 15 TTOOs on November 23rd in a cloudy day which takes some beauty of the views and on 28th on my own in 1h45mins to give it another look and have a better total impression about it.
The course opened in the 1920s and has a lot of tradition inside the Coub House, where the boards are full of historic names winning the Brazil Open and best amateur where some of my local argentine heroes were winners in the past. It is a very nice and classic Club House where staff gives you the feel of a first class club being extremely helpful and nice. My only "negative" point is that nobody speaks english, in an international course there should be people being able to communicate with somebody who doesn't speak portuguese.
The Course is going under some renovations (greens 6-16-17) and what I celebrate about this is it is not being done without a plan and without expertise, they hired Olympic Course Architect Gil Ganse which will for sure bring great changes and armony between new greens and the existing ones in a uniform blend with the rest of the course.
The other thing that needs to be said is course maintenance: every blade of grass was just perfect, tifeagle greens rolling at 10ft and perfect, firm bunkers where a skilled golfer will be able to choose the shot he wants to make and every tree perfectly well mantained. In my second round some greens had been aireated but no worries on that, it is a necessary process to keep them healthy and true.
About the course, in the first round we didn't play 16th and used a pprovisional par 3 between holes 6.7 as the long par 3 has new green under construction. On the second round 17th green had been torn out as Hanse plans to make this green better and more playable as it isa blind secnd shot of around 140yds where you need to have some escapes being the original green to tough and sometimes unfair.
About the holes, it is fair to difference the mountain/jungle part (holes 1-9 & 15-18) from the Ocean part (10-14) which has some similarities to Seminole at some point. It is a beautiful mix between these two parts of the course and I feel gives it an extra touch when compared to other courses to have this contrast in between the two parts of the course.
Par 5 3rd hole is one great golf hole, 90 degrees dogleg right where and agressive tee shot will allow you to get home in two. Green is small and tough, with a small false front and a very tough pin position on the far left corner. Then par 4 5th is one great hole with the elevated tee shot to a fairway that ends at 290yds with a small stream and an uphill second shot where one extra club is needed. Par 4 7th was one of my favourite, another elvated (not as much as 5th) tee shot to a slight dogleg left and an uphill approach shot way more sharp than 18th at Augusta National. Par 3 8th downhill plays similar to 11th at Los Leones in Chile, where calculating the distance is a tough challenge.
The holes on the Ocean are maybe the easiest, where you have to get your score specially 10-13 as 14th is a long tough par 4 before going back to the jungle part of the course. From this clearly 14th is the best hole to play like 450yds to a green sorrounded by waste bunker and OB at the back of it.
The last 4 holes will bring you back close to the Club House where 16-17 will be my favourite, first a long uphill par 3 playing 240yds and then 17th will that blind second shot.
Loved the course, liked the experience, accepted the challenge and feel that set up in championship conditions will really demand the best players. Definitely a course to be played, which Gil Hanse will for sure slowly improve step by step to make it a modern classic in the future years.
An incredible setting for a golf course. My round was made special by playing with the then Club Pro, Roberto Gonzalez-- Brazil's most famous golfer