Rio Olympic golf course eerily empty three months on

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Just three months after the Olympics ended, Rio's beautiful but controversial golf course is eerily quiet with birds' squawks far louder than the whack of balls.

Built specially for the 2016 Games on what had been a nature reserve next to the beach in western Rio, the links-style course was meant to convert Brazilians to a sport they barely know and put the city on the international golfing map.

But the $19 million facility created by star US designer Gil Hanse risks turning into a white elephant instead. A payment dispute could even lead to the imminent exit of the company responsible for upkeep, raising questions over the course's survival.

Just three people were hitting balls at the driving range during a visit by AFP this week. The main course was closed for maintenance, but only a trickle of players can be expected even when it's open, employees said.

The clubhouse was not only empty but almost entirely unfurnished. In the cafe, which has no chairs, a solitary waiter and a second man there to collect green fees waited in silence for customers.

A course that merely weeks ago hosted some of the world's best golfers has no pro-shop or a pro. There is no website. Even getting there can be tricky: there are no road signs indicating the entrance.

Perhaps encouraged by the lack of human activity, the Olympic course's wild inhabitants seem happy.

Birds and butterflies flitted through the rough. A capybara -- a squat, heavy-set rodent that grows to the size of a dog -- waddled next to one of the water hazards.

And when a big caiman -- a cousin of the alligator -- surfaced from the pond, the impression of a land that time forgot seemed complete.

- 'Soft opening' -

Unlike Rio de Janeiro's two existing private golf courses the Olympic site, run by the Brazilian Golf Confederation, is open to the public.

But few Brazilians play the game and green fees are high: $74-$82 per person for residents, and $192 for foreigner visitors.

With so few locals playing and no plan in place for attracting foreigners, funding is already a problem.

Neil Cleverly, the Briton who built the course and now manages the upkeep, says the company he works for, Progolf, has not been paid for two months.

"What happens when we run out of gas or diesel? We've been close," Cleverly said. "None of us know if there'll be a job for us in December."

A source close to the company who asked not to be identified said Progolf has been given no contract by the confederation and, having been forced to foot the $82,000 monthly maintenance operation out of its own pocket, is set to pull out.

Maybe "next month," the source said.

If that happens, the confederation would quickly have to find expert replacements before damage set in.

Without maintenance, "the golf course will die," the source said. "It could take four weeks, three weeks."

Paulo Pacheco, president of the golf confederation, said in emailed comments that Progolf is replaceable and that Rio will eventually have "one of the best and most iconic courses in the world."

According to Pacheco, an average of 40 people a day play. However, two employees interviewed at the course said that usually fewer come.

The confederation chief conceded that use of the course is "quite modest."

However, "this was the plan. We're having a soft opening to give time to carry out the investments."

- 'Frustration' -

Cleverly, who describes the Rio project as the most challenging of his globe-trotting career, shakes his head at the mess.

"It's so frustrating for us to get as far as we did. A lot of people said you're never going to do it," he said, recalling the challenge of building in Brazil.

"I'm disappointed and it's mixed up with a lot of frustration."

There was also dismay among the handful of Brazilian retirees who'd come to practice.

"The course is spectacular," Roberto Maueler, 61, said, but "people are really worried."

"We have a movement of golfers trying to pressure the authorities and the confederation to keep the course going," he said.

Luiz Villaboim, 64, also praised the course but criticized the lack of even basic features. "It seems that nothing has been done for the course since the Olympics," he said.

Pacheco asked for patience, promising a restaurant in 120 days and a worldwide marketing campaign. "We're starting from zero and it's a huge project," he said.