Aug 10, 2016 12:24 AM
Brazilian who learned golf with a branch will open Olympics
The Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The first Olympics in South America. The first time for golf in 112 years. So imagine the deep sense of honor for Adilson da Silva when the only Brazilian in the 60-man field was chosen to hit the first tee shot.
"One of the most special times in my life," he said.
The honor is not his alone.
Joining him on the first tee Thursday at Olympic Golf Course will be Andrew Edmondson, who has been part of da Silva's unlikely golf career for the better part of 30 years. Edmondson asked to be his caddie for the week, and both men could only smile at circumstances that led to this occasion.
Long ago, on a nine-hole course in Santa Cruz do Sol about a two-hour flight south of Rio, it was the other way around.
Da Silva was an 11-year-old who saw golf only as a way to make a little pocket money.
"If we found golf balls, we would sell them for pocket money," he said. "My parents didn't have much, so we had to do a bit of work. It teaches a good lesson. It was great fun. I used to go with my brother and friends. It teaches you to work a bit, to get things by working for it."
The more he worked and watched, the more the game began to appeal to him, even without the proper equipment. Finding golf balls to hit was the easy part. Getting golf clubs required a little imagination. Santa Cruz was the only course in town. Spare golf clubs were in short supply.
"We used to cut the branch of a tree in the shape of a golf club," da Silva said. "It was a proper head, you just had to shape it up nicely. I guess you had to improvise. Your timing had to be right because the shaft would be wobbly."
Edmondson, a tobacco buyer from Zimbabwe, used to spend half the year working his trade in Brazil. He loved golf, which was much more prominent in Zimbabwe, a country that produced Nick Price and Mark McNulty.
Edmondson would play on the weekends at Santa Cruz, and da Silva was 11 when he first hired him as a caddie.
They became close enough, and da Silva was getting good enough, that they would play together when Edmondson didn't have a regular game.
"I caddied for him for a couple of years when he came over for tobacco season, and we've become good friends," da Silva said. "And then one day he said, 'Look, do you want to give it a go?' Because maybe he thought there was some potential there. I was very fortunate."
Edmondson knew the teen would have a hard time developing his game in Brazil.
"It really was a 'baby steps' kind of thing," Edmondson said. "He didn't go from an 11-year-old caddie to the professional level. Basically, I was living out there and was transferred back to Zimbabwe. They have a very good junior golf program, and I got him into that. He got coaching from Tim Price, Nick's brother."
Da Silva was 17, and Edmondson figured he played off a 5 handicap. Within a few years, da Silva was winning amateur titles in Brazil and Zimbabwe, and he was good enough to turn pro at age 22.
His family still lives in Brazil, though da Silva has moved to Durban, South Africa and plays primarily on the Asian Tour and Sunshine Tour in South Africa. He has four career victories, starting with a Sunshine Tour event in 1998, his best year coming in 2013 when he won the Zambia Open and Sun City Challenge.
He has qualified for the British Open three times, making the cut (a tie for 69th) at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2012.
The Olympics tops them all.
As the host nation, Brazil was guaranteed at least one player for the Rio Games. Two Brazilians have made it to the PGA Tour — Lucas Lee this year and Alexandre Roche in 2011 and 2012 — and da Silva felt it was going to be close. He left nothing to chance, traveling across Asia to play seven times in eight weeks early in the year, staying away from his family in South Africa to chase world ranking points and secure his spot in Rio.
"It's a big deal to get here," he said. "I maybe have another chance, but this one, I needed to make sure. I sacrificed a lot. There was a lot of traveling. It's hard to leave your wife and kid behind, but it was something I had to do. I couldn't wait for it to happen. I had to make sure I was traveling and playing and practicing."
A tie for fourth in the Indian Open in March gave him breathing room, and a runner-up finish in the Swazi Open sealed it.
To be at home in Brazil for the first golf in the Olympics in 1904 was special. He was on the course with Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson and the rest of the best. And then the greatest week in his life got even better.
"They came up to me and said, 'You'll be the first one to tee off.' I was like, 'Woooo!' What an honor. I feel like I don't deserve it," da Silva said. "I'm very lucky."
Edmondson feels the same way.
He has caddied for da Silva a couple of times, mostly at the Zimbabwe Open and once at the Swiss Open. He didn't want to miss this, not with their history together.
"When it looked like he was going to play in the Olympics, I asked him if he wouldn't mine, and fortunately, he agreed," Edmondson said. "It's quite overwhelming. Just to be part of the Olympics, being involved with a close friend, it's awesome."