That night an old friend took me to the extraordinary Japanese restaurant at the Grand Hyatt, another fine place to stay. The courses were like movements in a symphony played on the taste buds. I told him that I had just run into Jorge Ben, a giant of MPB, on a fairway at Itanhanga. Ben had his clubs on a pullcart and was playing alone, walking double time.
The last time I had seen Ben was maybe fifteen years ago, in his dressing room at Sounds of Brasil (S.O.B.'s), the Brazilian club in New York City, and Dizzy Gillespie had also come to pay his respects. Ben had sung his way out of poverty, had taken up golf only four years ago and was already a fanatico, he told me. I wasn't surprised that he had gravitated to the game, because he is on the high plane of mellowness and imperturbable calm that golfing singers like Dean Martin and Bing Crosby were on, that you find in Tour players like Ernie Els and Fred Couples. Ben embodies the nao scenta a cabeca (don't get worked up about anything) insouciance of the Brazilian outlook, which is also the optimal state of mind in which to play golf. He said he was even thinking of writing some golf songs for his next CD.
We talked about how samba and golf both require balance, rhythm and timing, and how—when you think about it—the swing moves in the same three beats superimposed over two as samba does: The takeback is one-two, followed by the forward, fluid, uninterrupted whoosh of the downswing.
Maybe we should start a Samba School of Golf, I suggested. Ben laughed and said, "Vamos!" Let's go!
TRIP PLANNER: GOLF AND SAMBA IN BRAZIL
The best golf in Brazil is in three principal regions: Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and Sao Paulo. Using a tour operator is advised, given most Brazilians do not speak English, you need a visa to enter the country and many of the best courses are private. Let the tour operator or hotel concierge book your tee times.
Fall is a great time to go; best to avoid the heat of December through February. And according to the U.S. State Department, both Rio and Sao Paulo still have high crime rates, so leave valuables back in the hotel and only go out at night with the cash you'll need.
Rio de Janeiro
WHERE TO PLAY
Gavea Golf and Country Club (semiprivate). Open weekdays to guests of both the Sheraton Barra and the InterContinental Rio. The course boasts both jungle and beachside terrain. Estrada da Gavea 800, Sao Conrado; 011-55/21-3323-6050, gaveagolf.com.br. Greens fee: $139 including caddie.
Itanhanga Golf Club (semiprivate). Located in the tony Barra da Tijuca area, Itanhanga is open weekdays to Sheraton Barra guests. The course has small, demanding greens. 2005 Barra da Tijuca; 011-55/21-2494-250, itanhanga.com.br. Greens fee: $92.
WHERE TO STAY
Copacabana Palace A five-star hotel on the famous Copacabana beach, with fine dining and a full spa. Avenida Atlantica 1702; 011-55/21-2548-7070, copacabanapalace.com.br. Rooms from $420.
InterContinental Rio Hotel Closer to the city center, the InterContinental has extensive meeting space, three restaurants, a full spa and an excellent concierge staff. Avenida Prefeito Mendes de Morais 222; 011-55/21-3323-2200, ichotelsgroup.com. Rooms from $180.
Sheraton Barra Hotel & Suites Located on Rio's least crowded and longest beach, the Sheraton offers five-star accommodations, two pools and a full-service fitness center. Avenida Lucio Costa 3150, Barra da Tijuca; 011-55/21-3139-8000, sheraton-barra.com.br. Rooms from $189.