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.
Date: January 31, 2021