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The Samba of Golf

To get to Comandatuba, you leave your car in a village near the mouth of a river that pours into the Atlantic and take a ferry across to a boardwalk leading through a mangrove swamp, which fills at dusk with egrets and other waterbirds roosting for the night. It is as faery an entry to the Mystical Kingdom as I've encountered anywhere. There's a big resort hotel and tennis courts and a beautiful beach. The course is flat and mostly sand. If you stray into the impenetrable palmetto thornscrub from which it was carved, forget about even finding your ball. I played with a twenty-year-old pro named Jardial, a talented local who had worked his way up from caddie and was dreaming of making the Latin America tour. It was a perfect afternoon of golf in the Brazilian springtime, with the smell of the ocean and the sound of nearby crashing surf a constant, soothing presence. We had the course to ourselves except for two ladies and dozens of caracaras, crested birds of prey that patrol the ground haughtily, pulling up worms.

From there I drove down to Porto Seguro, where Brazil was "discovered" in 1500 by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvarez Cabral (not that millions of native people hadn't been living there for thousands of years). Forty-five minutes south of Porto Seguro, I reached Trancoso, where Terravista, Blankenship's masterpiece, aptly hailed the Pebble Beach of South America, is laid out near a surprisingly elegant Club Med.

The front nine at Terravista is cut out of the coastal rain forest, and capuchin monkeys are frequently encountered on the cart paths. There is a beautiful view down to a valley choked with flora, through which a river makes its last turn before gushing into the surf. The back nine runs along the ocean on top of a 130-foot cliff—hook it and you're down in the waves. The signature hole, number fourteen, a par three that you have to carry from one spur of the clifftop to another, is one of the most spectacular in golf. Behind the green we looked down to the foamy surf and the huge yellow-brown carapaces of twenty or so leatherbacks, the largest turtles on earth, which were tossing in it, feeding or mating or perhaps both. Humpback whales are also a common sight from the course, making their way up and down the Bahia coast.

I played with Galen Briggs, a laid-back transplanted Oklahoman who is married to a Brazilian and rents out upscale beach bungalows just down the coast. The crown jewel is called the 17th Hole and is so incredible it merits its own web site (17hole .br.com). "I've played a lot of nice courses in the United States, but nothing with the drama of this," Briggs told me after effortlessly running off a side of pars and birdies.

From Porto Seguro I flew to Sao Paulo, where most of the country's courses are located. There I played at three private clubs. The first two, Sao Paulo Golf Club and Sao Fernando Golf Club, I navigated with Alvaro Almeida, the genial president of the Brazilian Golf Confederation, who is a member of both. A short, stocky man with swept-back gray hair like Anthony Quinn, Almeida owns most of the digital billboards in the city and puts out a magazine for the beautiful people. His cell phone rang nonstop.

Sao Paulo Golf Club was founded in 1901 by another bunch of British expats, who lugged their clubs on the tramway out to what was then rural Santo Amaro. Today it is a lush, stately oasis of privilege, redolent of tradition in the vast urban jungle of Sao Paulo. The holes are long tree-lined allées and the clubhouse is majestic, a fine place to watch players coming in.

The next day, Almeida took me to Sao Fernando Golf Club, which is an hour out of the city and is less formal and manicured, a place where you can let your hair down with your buddies. It too was uma delicia, a delight. And the following day I played with the pro at Quinta da Baroneza, one of the sumptuous Florida-style gated communities that are becoming increasingly popular with the Brazilian rich and are the main thing spurring the golf boom. It's another Blankenship course, a linksy design with scarcely a tree on it, crafted from rolling pasture and overlooked by palatial haciendas, most of which dwarf the clubhouse.

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