As you are no doubt aware, Brazil is not a country hung up on its sexuality. This becomes apparent when you stroll the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon in Rio de Janeiro, picking your way among young golden females in dental-floss bikinis. The intoxicating tropical lushness that permeates life in Brazil even carries over to its golf courses, of which there still are not very many, though a couple are absolutely exquisite. A few years ago I played a round with the Brazilian women's golf champion, and she was such a beauty it was distracting. You can't help being reminded on these Brazilian tracks that the golf swing is, before anything, a sensual act.
I was sucked into the sensuality on Itanhanga, the first course I encountered during a recent sweep of Brazil's top seven courses. Itanhanga was laid out in l933 on the floor of a valley surrounded by granite domes and frothing rain forest in the Barra de Tijuca, the happening new barrio (or bairro in Portuguese) as Rio spreads south down the coast. The course is very flat; the placement of the trees and the occasional dip, canal or pond are what make for the difficulty. It's reminiscent of Riviera, which also has a polo field and stables, and it is a nature sanctuary as well. Spoonbills sweep its pond for crustaceans, pygmy owls nest under one bunker, and at one tee, four adorable little lion tamarins—the dimunitive primate that is endemic to this coastal forest—watched us hit our drives from a nearby tree.
Itanhanga was voted the best course in the country in 2004 by the PGA of Brazil. The 443-yard eighteenth is regarded as the toughest closing hole in Brazil, but I sent a colossal drive straight down its inviting, ever-widening vee and hit in with a four-iron dead on the pin—if forty feet past. It was just my body, in touch with itself, responding to the beauty that is all over the place here: golf as samba.
At the time this is being written, there are only 105 golf courses in Brazil, a drop in the bucket compared to the roughly 25,000 in the United States. Palm Springs alone, with 120, has more places to play than this huge nation does. The main reason for this is that Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, not the Brits—although British expats, wouldn't you know it, put in the first courses.
But suddenly golf is taking off in Brazil. It's the "new beautiful game," according to the Associated Press. Twenty-five thousand Brazilians now play regularly—still a far cry from Argentina's one hundred thousand, but in 2000 there were only six thousand. In the last six years, driving ranges and golf stores have multiplied. Thirty new courses are in the works, including one financed by Donald Trump and designed by Jack Nicklaus. Another, Terravista, on the coast of Bahia, is a serious contender for the world's most scenic golf course.
Some of the youth in the dark-skinned underclass, which makes up the bulk of the population, have taken up the game, hoping it will be their ticket out of poverty. Tiger Woods is their role model. But golf here is still mainly a game for the very rich, and most Brazilians have yet to hear of it. Indeed, my clubs were objects of considerable wonder in the small towns I passed through. As Fabio Mazza, a promoter of what is poised to become a $150 million a year industry, told me, "Golf is still in its infancy. Brazil is not yet ready for the golf tourist, but it's ready for the tourist who golfs."
Flying into Rio, I checked into the Windsor Palace as I always do. It's a small, cozy hotel on a quiet, shady street a block from the beach in Copacabana. Here, one is in the thick of things, though you might want to stay at the grander Copacabana Palace. Both are handy to the boutiques on the Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, which have all kinds of snappy and elegant attire, including golf wear. Or if you want to be closer to the golf, you can stay at the Inter-Continental Rio in Sao Conrado, a stone's throw from the Gavea Golf and Country Club. Other advantages of the InterContinental are that its beach is cleaner and less crowded, and the hotel has a fine Italian restaurant and live samba.