From the August 2016 issue of GCM magazine:
Superintendent Neil Cleverly seems to have been the right person at the right time to oversee the course that will host Olympic golf for the first time in more than a century.
Photos courtesy of Bladerunner Farms
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Neil Cleverly brings new meaning to “traveling light.”
A London native and 17-year GCSAA member, Cleverly took what for him amounted to a rare and lengthy break from his job to attend the 2015 Golf Industry Show in San Antonio. He carried a suitcase for the journey, but he didn’t need to worry about incurring an extra charge from the airline for an overweight bag. After losing nearly 50 pounds, Cleverly was toting an empty suitcase. He figured his GIS trip would be an opportunity to mix business and shopping so he could buy new clothes.
“People were telling me I had gone through so many wardrobes,” says Cleverly, whose weight plummeted during 14-plus-hour workdays at his current gig, for which he spent a lot of time hauling tools on his shoulder in the sand and persisting on what was often a beans-and-rice diet — when he actually did take the time to eat. “I lost count how many times I had my shorts tailored locally before I decided this was ridiculous.”
Superintendent Neil Cleverly says some parts of the Olympic Golf Course resemble naturalized areas of Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina. A 17-year GCSAA member, Cleverly has overseen golf course construction worldwide, including in Egypt and the Dominican Republic.
Cleverly’s current task happens to be a biggie. But if anybody is suited for this historic moment in golf, many say he’s the perfect fit. “There may be a handful, if that many, of people who could do what he is doing now,” says Tim Hiers, CGCS, director of agronomy at The Club at Mediterra in Naples, Fla.
Here’s what Cleverly is doing: For the first time in 112 years, golf is a sport again in the Olympic Games, and Cleverly, 57, is the person charged with overseeing the built-from-scratch Olympic Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro, where Olympic golf in a stroke-play format for men and women will be staged Aug. 11 through 20.
A long and winding road
Reaching this point has been a triumph in itself.
Construction of the course started later than scheduled in 2013. Once it began, it wasn’t unusual for Cleverly’s car to be pelted with rotten eggs by environmentalists protesting the golf course being built on Barra da Tijuca, a natural reserve for endangered species. “They (protesters) kept calling us environmental terrorists and various other names I won’t repeat,” says Cleverly, who spent part of his life in the United Kingdom’s military and adds that finding graffiti splashed across the golf course fence was common during the building process, as were protesters sneaking inside to vandalize areas such as bunkers. “When they (protesters) were asked to actually come to the golf course to see what we were doing, they just ignored the invitation and wrote crap about what we were doing, telling lies, trying to get us shut down, to stop construction and stop the grow-in. There were things you were exposed to you wouldn’t think would happen on a daily basis.”
Battling red tape in a country where the president is currently facing an impeachment trial happened early and often throughout the grow-in and completion. Other issues persisted as well, including concerns over the Zika virus. Recognizable players such as Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth have chosen not to compete. Encountering multiple levels of managers and departments that weren’t golf-savvy, as well as squabbling with contractors and course developers who sometimes made his hurdles mountainous, presented a lofty, uphill climb, for Cleverly.
“I’ve tried on many occasions to change the conversation to direct it to the benefit of golf,” says Cleverly, noting that he often had someone looking over his shoulder monitoring what his crew was doing. “This project doesn’t allow you to be stress-free at any point, regardless if it’s over the condition of the golf course, lack of a budget, or machinery issues.”
The Olympic Golf Course possesses features reminiscent of the Australian sand belt, Cleverly says. The course will be used
as a public facility following the Olympics.
Herbicides? Not allowed. Cleverly had to try to wait patiently for equipment and materials to pass through customs, not knowing whether they would ever arrive from the United States. Speaking of arrivals, Cleverly is hoping his 46 volunteers (which is less than half the number that helped out for the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club) show up. “It’s harder than you can imagine (securing their services) with all the politics and security involved,” says Cleverly, whose regular crew includes 29 employees plus eight landscapers.
Those issues have been only part of Cleverly’s challenges in a South American country that has more than 200 million inhabitants but only an estimated 30,000 golfers (by comparison, the U.S. has a population of roughly 324 million and 25 million golfers). In forming a work crew, overcoming language barriers proved to be just one hurdle. To say his crew came to him “raw” may be the understatement of the century. “I have a chef, pizza-maker, gas station guy, and a guy who cuts hair. They arrived here from different walks of life,” Cleverly says. “They had no idea how to cut their own lawn, let alone maintain a golf course. If you didn’t have the patience of Job ... every single day’s never entirely been a good day.”
Still, Cleverly played a key role in achieving what the International Golf Federation (IGF) has had in mind for its first venture into Olympic golf since 1904. “Everybody who has been involved in this project, from the IGF, from the PGA Tour, and every supporting organization of the IGF, really does owe Neil a debt of gratitude for his dedication, his singular focus, and his ability to produce what we think is going to be one of the most iconic venues, if not the most iconic venue, of these Olympic Games,” says Ty Votaw, IGF president and the PGA Tour’s executive vice president of communications. “I 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.”
The daily doings of the Olympic Golf Course grounds staff,
which includes 29 full-time members and eight landscapers.
Cleverly hopes to have more than 40 volunteers
join his crew for the Olympics.
A vagabond with thick skin
Chances are, interns can rarely hold an audience captivated like Cleverly was able to do. Cleverly arrived as an intern at The Old Collier Golf Club in Naples, Fla., shortly after 9/11. Hiers, who was the superintendent there at the time, often employed interns from overseas. Cleverly, though, was no ordinary intern. He was a bit older, having served for the Queen, and was now pursuing a career in turfgrass management, which he had studied at Myerscough College in England.
Todd Draffen, an assistant at Old Collier in those days and now its GCSAA Class A superintendent, recalls asking Cleverly about his life in the military. “Some of the stories were things you’d expect to see in the movies,” says Draffen, a 20-year GCSAA member, who notes that Cleverly was beneficial in helping the club develop a fertility management program and suggested it try Sisis maintenance equipment from the U.K., which it did, and which it still uses to this day.
Cleverly, who credits mentors such as Ronny Duncan, Ph.D., for helping pave his way into golf course management — “Without his knowledge and others who have taught me what I know about warm-season grasses, water and soil salinity chemistry, I would not have the level of education I currently have,” Cleverly says — often tapped outside resources to help him become the best he could be. Another influence in his life, Bob Carrow, retired professor of turfgrass science at the University of Georgia, encountered Cleverly during those Florida days. He says Cleverly would eagerly inquire about the business, often copying Carrow on emails when he wanted to run ideas past him and others. “Very observant. A good manager,” Carrow says. “He wasn’t afraid to ask questions, then listen. That’s a good trait.”
Cleverly spent 18 months with Hiers before embarking on a journey in which he lived out of a suitcase while helping grow in and build golf courses around the world. He made stops in Egypt, the Dominican Republic, Poland and Mexico. Discipline ingrained in him from his stint in the military aided Cleverly at each stop, particularly in Brazil after he was selected to be the superintendent at the Olympic course.
“He was the perfect choice. We needed somebody who was tough,” says Gil Hanse, the course’s architect. “The word I use is ‘disciplined.’ We needed somebody who was going to put up with the ups and downs — not just over years, but day after day.”
Cleverly taking care of business. It isn’t uncommon for him
to spend 14 hours a day on-site.
Cleverly had the honor of taking the first golf shot
after the Olympic Golf Course had been completed.
Photos courtesy of Gil Hanse
Cleverly’s experience served him well. “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, and you’ve got to lead from the front,” he says. “Military training is everything about leadership, discipline, honor, the buddy system, working with your friends, and creating positives rather than negatives, and dealing with those negatives the best way you can.”
That includes handling his workforce, some of whom travel two hours to work.
“Some days I have to shout. But when I shout, I shout for a reason,” Cleverly says. “It’s making them understand what they need to do. It’s not about animosity. Some need more attention, some need more teaching, but some get it straightaway. I’ve got three guys that come from one family, and they work like dogs. They’re excellent. They listen. They’re attentive. They do most things correctly the first time.”
That is, when crew members show up. In 2014, during the World Cup, some of Cleverly’s staff would simply walk off the golf course to find the nearest TV to watch a soccer match. It didn’t necessarily thrill him, but Cleverly played along. “They love their futbol. I understand that. I wanted to watch England play,” Cleverly says. “But there comes a point you’ve got to get things done. You’ve got to live and breathe what life is here, got to accept the way they do things, and if you don’t do that, you’re never going to win them over.”
Hanse says Cleverly has converted his crew into “a lean, mean, fighting machine.” Cal Roth, senior vice president of agronomy for the PGA Tour, has consulted with Cleverly on-site numerous times, and says he’s impressed with how Cleverly has earned his staff’s approval. “He had to hire and train a staff with basically zero experience or knowledge working on a golf course. Now, they are good. Very good. And they’re loyal to Neil,” Roth says. “He’s a smart agronomist. He has an inner drive that won’t allow failure, and he’s that way sunup to sundown, seven days a week. I’m not sure if I know of another superintendent who could go through it.”
It’s almost go-time. Will Cleverly eventually go, too?
In late spring, Golf Digest instruction writer Matt Rudy spent time at the Olympic Golf Course, and his visit included snapping images via a drone. He came away with quite an appreciation for Cleverly. “They call it an ‘environmentally protected space,’ but basically it was a garbage dump. To reclaim that land and build what they built ... the golf course looks fantastic. The quality of the greens is amazing,” Rudy says. “My guess is he (Cleverly) thrives on adversity and the situation. People don’t understand how difficult it is to get a golf course on the edge like that for the best players in the world.”
The team that helped make the Olympic Golf Course a reality, from left to right: Olympic Golf Course architect Gil Hanse; Marcelo Matte, CEO of Green Grass Brazil, whose company grew the grass for the course; Bladerunner Farms president David Doguet, whose company developed Zeon zoysia, which is being used on the course; and Cleverly.
In February, Cleverly received uplifting news. The State of Rio de Janeiro’s Department of Justice announced that the golf course was contributing to growth in local vegetation, and that some species of animals that had previously fled the area were returning. Cleverly says the golf course is similar in ways to Australia’s sand belt, and that in places, it resembles the native areas at Pinehurst No. 2. The 600-yard par-5 18th features a second shot into what could be a stiff wind. “With the wind direction on the golf course, it could gust from 8 to 28 mph in a matter of seconds,” he says.
A father of two, Cleverly spends his evenings catching up on emails, watching news, writing letters. He says he’s put on some weight, citing ice cream as the culprit. Otherwise, it’s all golf course, all the time, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The phrase I used at my interview, and have used many times before, is ‘If you love what you do for a living, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ It’s not a job; it’s a vocation,” Cleverly says. “I’m honored to be part of this. It has a special place on the golf calendar, and it will every four years.”
Where will Cleverly be in four years — or even four days, four weeks or four months following the Olympics? He isn’t certain. He has already received offers to go elsewhere, but looking that far down the road is a topic for another day.
“I’m going to relax awhile. Play some golf for a while. Sleep for a while. I haven’t made any specific plans, haven’t made any real decisions about what I want to do,” Cleverly says. “There’s going to be things to do here right after the Olympics, so I don’t want to just pack my bags and leave.”
Cleverly participated in a field trip to showcase the Zeon zoysia that’s being used on the Olympic Golf Course, and he also did a presentation at the 2015 Golf Industry Show in San Antonio.
Photo by Jimmy Thomas
The unknown is: Will those bags be filled — or empty? In any case, Cleverly has certainly proved that he is anything but a lightweight in his profession.
Bladerunner Farms president David Doguet, whose company supplied the Zeon zoysia for the Olympic Golf Course’s fairways, roughs and tees (the greens are SeaDwarf seashore paspalum), says if Cleverly moves on, he shouldn’t leave empty-handed. “If there’s a gold medal for superintendents, he should surely get it,” Doguet says.
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.