Rio's Olympic golf course has hazards: legal, environmental, political - and growing grass

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RIO DE JANEIRO — The golf course for the 2016 Olympics has been embroiled in legal wrangling since the day three years ago when American golf architect Gil Hanse won the design contest over other bidders including Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

Local prosecutors have sued wealthy developer Pasquale Mauro about ownership rights of the golf course property — some of the most expensive in Rio de Janeiro — and then for infringing environmental rules to carve the course out of a nature reserve.

Another prosecutor is weighing charges against Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes for granting concessions to Mauro to build the $20 million course. Paes has been lauded by International Olympic Committee officials as a "key player" in getting things done in Rio, which has faced delays preparing the games.

The developer is planning 160 opulent marble and glass apartments at the edge of the course, starting at about $2 million. A few penthouses could go for four times that much in Barra da Tijuca, the western Rio suburb at the center of the Olympics.

Some question whether another golf course is needed in Rio, where few play the game. The city has two courses, and one — Itanhanga Golf Club — has 27 holes and has held a European Tour event and an LPGA tournament.

The activist group Golfe Para Quem (Golf For Whom) has held small protests for months at the course. Last month a group of protesters entered a luxury hotel at Copacabana Beach as IOC President Thomas Bach was wrapping up 2 1/2 days of meeting. They held signs that read: "Thomas Bach is a nature killer" and "The city is not for sale."

Paes gave reporters access to parts of the course on Wednesday.

Here's how things stand with the course with the Olympics opening in less than 500 days on Aug. 5, 2016:


COURSE PROGRESS

The next few months are critical. Construction work has stopped, grass is down and this is what's known as the "grow-in phase." Southern Brazil is going through one of its worst droughts in 80 years, bad news for growing grass. Rio is coming out of its summer season, meaning grass will grow more slowly over the next six months heading into Rio's mild winter season. There is probably plenty of time for the Olympics. The crunch comes in getting ready for a critical test event.


TEST EVENT

Rio organizers last week published a schedule of test events showing a golf event for Nov. 26-29. However, in an email to The Associated Press, International Golf Federation vice president Ty Votaw said the date "is simply a placeholder for the date a golf test event might take place." He said it all depends on when the course is ready, "which is too early to confirm at this time."

It's unclear if it will be a tour event, or something less. Plans call for the course to be public, though the public is unlikely to get an early chance to play a round.


PROBLEMS GALORE

Hanse talked about the "challenges" building the course a year ago in an interview with AP. Last month he spelled them out in an interview with the Golf Channel.

"Everybody knows there have been ups and downs, bumps in the road with this," Hanse said. "There's just been issues with the landowner-developer, proper resources, timing, etc. I think I was very naive about doing business in Brazil. I was warned by a lot of people it would be a challenge. But I just assumed this is the Olympics. This is a priority. They have to get this straight. I think what we found over these 3 1/2 years is that's not necessarily the truth."


NO COMPROMISE

Hanse, who hinted last year the course might fall short of expectations, talks confidently now.

"At the end of the day, all of those issues that have occurred have impacted the timeline," he said. "They've not impacted the quality of the golf course. They've not impacted the design. They've allowed us to build what we wanted to build."


LATEST SUIT

Prosecutor Alberto Flores Camargo is weighing civil charges of "misconduct causing damage to the public treasury" for concessions Mayor Paes allegedly granted the course developer. Plaintiffs say Rio's city government gerrymandered the boundaries of the nature reserve — changing zoning laws — to allow the course to be built. Corruption charges could resonate in Brazil. Federal prosecutors are investigating the largest graft case in Brazil's history involving at least $800 million in a kickback scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras.


Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP

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