Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: According to those who know what it has taken, golf course superintendent Neil Cleverly deserves his own gold medal for the job he’s done preparing a championship golf course at Reserva de Marapendi outside of Rio de Janeiro for the upcoming Olympic Games.
“If there’s a gold medal for superintendents, he surely should get it,” said David Doguet, President of Bladerunner Farms, whose company supplied the specific zoysia grass for the job.
Right from the beginning, there were challenges.
Construction began six months later than planned because of environmental protesters, who routinely pelted Cleverly’s car with eggs and shouted insults at him.
He hired an inexperienced work crew that includes a pizza chef, a gas station attendant and a barber – some of whom travel two hours to work each day. And the machinery he needed for the job was nearly impossible to get.
“He had to hire and train a staff with zero experience and knowledge working on a golf course,” said Cal Roth, Senior Vice President of Agronomy for the PGA Tour. “He has an inner drive that won’t allow failure. I’m not sure another superintendent could go through it.”
The stress of the job and the long hours left Cleverly 50 pounds lighter than before he took the job in 2013. But he shrugs it off like he does so many things. It is one of the reasons the 57-year-old London native has flourished as a golf course superintendent in Egypt, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Poland.
“You’ve got to have two or three levels of skin, and you’ve got to be able to filter out the bad from the good. You’ve got to lead from the front,” said Cleverly.
He learned Portuguese before got to Brazil, but there are times when his tone is easy to understand, even if his words are not.
“Some days I have to shout. But when I shout, I shout for a reason,” said Cleverly. “It’s making them understand what they need to do. It’s not about animosity.”
Gil Hanse, the course architect, said: “He was the perfect choice. We needed somebody who was tough. The word I use is disciplined. We needed somebody who was going to put up with the ups and downs day after day.”
Although demanding, Cleverly has earned the respect and affinity of his crew. He has earned the respect of state politicians as well. In February, Cleverly learned the State of Rio de Janeiro’s Department of Justice announced that the golf course was contributing to the growth in local vegetation. Some species of animals that had fled were returning.
It’s all coming together for the journeyman superintendent. The paspalum greens look fantastic and the zoysia grass fairways and roughs are quite lush.
“I kind of call him the grass whisperer because he must have some abilities to communicate with the grass that belies the resources and the support he received along the way,” said Ty Votaw, International Golf Federation President and the PGA Tour’s Vice President of Communications.