Future of Olympic golf course in hands of court

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A Brazilian court is set to decide the future of the golf course for the 2016 Olympics, a layout that is being carved out of a nature reserve with luxury high-rise apartments planned around the edges.

The city of Rio de Janeiro and the course developer are defendants in a lawsuit that alleges environmental laws were broken in authorizing and building the course. Earlier this month, Rio judge Eduardo Klausner gave them until Wednesday to say if the design can be modified to offer concessions to environmentalists.

Golf's return to the Olympics after 112 years is a centerpiece of the Rio Games. But the course has been plagued by legal challenges over land ownership, questions about the impact on a local ecosystem, and other delays that date back almost five years.

The court has suggested that the developer creates a corridor 400 meter (yards) wide to allow wildlife to move between wooded and wetland areas on either side of the course.

"It is in society's interests that the Olympics take place, and it's also in society's interests that the environment be preserved," Klausner said at a hearing two weeks ago. "What has to be observed is legality, and within legality is respect for the environment."

Court-ordered changes could slow construction, jeopardizing a high-profile venue for the Olympics. The city has two other courses, including the Itanhanga Golf Club, which has hosted European Tour and LPGA Tour events.

Any late reversal would embarrass local organizers, threaten the developer's investment and again raise questions about Rio's preparations. They have moved more quickly in recent months after being termed the "worst" in memory by a top-ranking IOC official.

Golf officials have acknowledged that the course faces tight deadlines. The turf is still going down, a job that must be completed before Rio's hot summer starts around December. Any delays would jeopardize a test event planned for late 2015 or early 2016.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, speaking last week with The Associated Press, said his legal advisers were calling the court case a "red herring."

"It's a political situation in that area of Rio," he said.

"The mayor's office (Mayor Eduardo Paes) thinks this is a distraction," Finchem added. "So our own people are comfortable on the ground. And the people we work with down there, and the Olympic Committee, all seem reasonably relaxed about it."

Some of the tension centers on developer Pasquale Mauro, one of the largest landowners in the Rio suburb of Barra da Tijuca, where two-thirds of Olympics events will be held. There have been complaints he has moved slowly on course construction, focusing more on the real estate development.

Ty Votaw, vice president of the International Golf Federation, said work has speeded up since a meeting in March with the developer, city officials and Rio organizers.

"But we recognized that up to that point they (developer) had missed six or seven scheduled deadlines," Votaw said, speaking two months ago at the British Open.

In a separate interview, Votaw hinted at other concerns.

"It's (the course) probably not going to be as perfect as our ideal situation would be," Votaw said. "But it's going to be as good as we can do it based on the resources that are applied to it by the landowner."

Votaw and other world golf officials have said little since the court case opened. Votaw has said there are "contingency plans" but has declined to explain them.

Plans call for the course to be public after the Olympics, a move that is designed to spread the game in Brazil. The course sits on some of Rio's most expensive real estate. Golf in the South American country has no tradition, few golfers and is played mostly by the very wealthy.

A complex of 160 luxury marble and glass apartments in four 20-story towers is to go up overlooking the course. Prices range from $2.5 million to $7 million with completion planned for a year after the Olympics end. A few luxury penthouses are more expensive.


AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this report.


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

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