I believe that something like that could be true.
--STEVE COOK, executive director of the South American tour
For instance, this could be true. It's a story about Pedro
Martinez, the Paraguayan golfer, that was told in Argentina in
late October on the shuttle bus between the Presidente Hotel and
the Rosario Golf Club. "I've heard that Pedro showed up for his
first tournament in a T-shirt and jeans," says a North American
from behind a seat piled high with golf bags. "He was so poor he
had to sleep in a sand trap."
At the course, the story is repeated for Cook, a plump,
imperturbable man facing middle age with a laptop computer and a
bulging passport. "I can check that," he says, the corners of
his mouth turning up. "I believe that something like that could
Five minutes later he returns with Martinez, who after four
tournaments leads the South American tour's money list with
$33,846.67. "This is going to sound like the circus tour," Cook
says with a grin. "Pedro never slept in a bunker, but he says he
fished for food and hunted birds with a slingshot. Plucked them
and cooked them himself." In halting Spanish, Cook presses
Martinez for more details of his remarkable life--his childhood
in a rural village, his life as a caddie in Asuncion, his
improbable tournament career. "He broke Sam Snead's 72-hole
record at Sao Paulo Country Club," Cook says. "But one time he
missed the cut here in Argentina and had to sell his clubs to
December 9, 1996
Another for instance. Two players in the backseat of a Volvo
speeding down the floodlit channel of the Paseo de la Republica
in Lima, Peru, are comparing what they've heard about the city's
rainfall. One says it hasn't rained in Lima since 1948. Another
says it rained in 1978, causing roofs to collapse and pigs to
float down streets. As the car turns onto a frontage road, the
city itself seems to testify: block after block of roofless
buildings. Cook, at the wheel, says, "We can ask Humberto about
Humberto Berger, a prosperous dentist, is president and one of
the founding fathers of the six-year-old South American tour. He
answers the rainfall question at dinner, while watching a
Chinese chef in red tunic, gold epaulets and a guardsman's hat
carve up a Peking duck. "We live on a coastal desert," Berger
says. "The year that it rained was 1971. It rained for three or
four hours, and the city was devastated. We have no sewers.
There was no place for the water to go."
A related for instance. Antonio Barcellos, a young golfer from
Porto Alegre, Brazil, whose swing is replicated on 5,000
MasterCards in his country, insists that until this year the
fairways of Lima's Los Inkas Country Club were flooded every
Monday. "The water passed through a poultry plant on its way to
the golf course," he says, "so during our practice rounds the
course would be covered with feathers. They would drift like
snow, and when you hit the ball, feathers would fly."
Is it also true, what I've heard? That in a village called
Macondo, all the people caught a virus that robbed them of their
memories? That no one could remember what things were called, so
village officials had to put labels on everything: Cama for bed,
pared for wall, cabra for goat? Is this true?
No, says a voice on the bus. That's from a novel by Gabriel
Garcia Marquez, the magic realist. The story of the South
American tour is being written by Cook, the comic realist.
"Cookie," as most of the players call him, appreciates novelty.
His smile proclaims, "What a privilege to witness such lunacy!"
Of course, this may be the only posture to assume if you're the
brains behind the world's most overlooked and charming golf
tour. Launched in 1991, the South American tour began as a
five-tournament dash across a continent consumed in political
and economic turmoil. Six years later the tour has grown to 10
tournaments, played from October to December, and seems poised
to develop into a Latin American tour of 15 or more televised
events linking Mexico to Patagonia. "South America is golf's
great hidden secret," Cook says.
For now, though, Cook's tour is a menagerie: 90 or so South
American pros, some of them unable to read or write; six
light-haired Swedes; a Namibian who plays out of St. Louis; a
vacationing PGA Tour player; a Belgian who was once a
professional clown; a Canadian who signed up, French Foreign
Legion-style, when his fiancee gave back the ring; a gaggle of
young Americans cramming for Q school; and a Japanese player
learning to swear in English.
Any resemblance to the PGA Tour is coincidental. On a Monday
morning in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Cook lets a man in a business
suit into room 422 of the Oro Verde Hotel. The man hands Cook a
paper bag containing $101,000 in U.S. currency, and while Cook
counts the cash, Rafael Miranda Roca, the president of Guayaquil
Country Club, lights up a cigar. "This kind of money is meant
for smoke-filled rooms," Cook says approvingly.
Thirty minutes later players begin rapping at Cook's door. When
Cook says, "Next victim," Corina Bronger, the tour's
administrative assistant, lets one in. The biggest bundle of
cash, $18,000, is set aside for Argentina's Gustavo Rojas
because the winner of the Ecuadorian Open is already winging
toward Peru, the tour's next stop. The second-biggest bundle,
$11,140, is picked up by Jeff (Game Show) Schmid, a tall, thin
Minnesotan with wispy red chin whiskers and a perpetual air of
wariness. Schmid counts his money twice before signing for it.
"We would rather not pay the players in cash," Cook says, "but
banking in South America presents some difficulties."
Some players don't have bank accounts, for one. For another,
local currencies are not fairly or readily exchanged between
countries. That leaves the U.S. dollar as the only dependable
medium and the money belt as the most trustworthy depository.
Jeff Peck, a young pro from Carrollton, Texas, won a few
thousand dollars his first season and walked around hugging his
wealth as obsessively as Midas. "It was all the money I had in
the world," he says. "I put it in this toy room safe, but I
couldn't sleep at night, and when I got to the golf course I
couldn't keep my mind on my game." To save his sanity, Peck
finally wired his money home--at a cost of $200.
Ecuador is not a golfing country, but Guayaquil Country Club is
53 years old. It was home to the country's first course, a
nine-holer. As recently as 1958 the greens were sand, and that
year, for the first time, Ecuador sent its best golfers to the
South American Amateur Championship, played entirely on grass.
"They were good players," says Miranda, "but they three-putted
or four-putted every green."
Grass greens were subsequently installed, but the club continued
for many years with stone-walled tees topped with dirt and
asphalt. "You teed off with cutoff tees because you couldn't
sink a long tee into the asphalt," Miranda says. An engineer
educated in the U.S., Miranda now presides over a club with a
modern stone clubhouse, two swimming pools, a tennis club and an
equestrian center. The lush 18-hole golf course may be the least
of the club's attractions. The whole of Ecuador has four 18-hole
courses and perhaps a thousand players, counting caddies. "The
waiters play golf on Mondays," Miranda says. "They count!"
Only at the IMG-cosponsored Argentina Open, the continent's
oldest and most prestigious tournament, are tickets sold to the
general public. The spectators at other tour events are club
members, sponsors and invited guests who wander the fairways
unrestrained, if they wander at all. There are no leader boards,
no concession stands and no portable toilets.
There are mosquitoes. "We'll need to keep moving," Cook says,
spraying his arms and hands with insect repellent during the
final round of the Ecuadorian Open. "In the low areas the
insects tend to swarm." Steering his golf cart around hibiscus
hedges, up and down hills, over crunchy pepper pods, Cook keeps
an eye out for rules infractions and slow play. "A lot of the
South American players slow down on Sundays," he says. "It's
sort of a stare-down, macho thing."
Cook's slow-play warnings are gentle--and companionable: "I need
to ask you to play faster," he says. Some golfers react
defensively; others simply nod. One player, a gringo, high-steps
down the fairway like a drum major, waving at Cook. "You see the
fear I inspire," Cook says dryly.
Later in the day Schmid visits the tournament office to mildly
protest the slow-play warning that he and his partners in the
last group received at the turn. "They never time the last group
at the Masters," Schmid argues. "Fred Couples can be four holes
behind and they don't time him." To this Cook cocks his head and
smiles blissfully, as if to say, Did one of my players just
compare this operation with the Masters?
Schmid, one discovers, is the canary in the coal mine, the
squeaky wheel, the five-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter
in the suggestion box. He's a natural quizmaster--hence his
nickname. "I'd see him in the morning and he'd start with the
questions," Cook says. "They'd spill out so fast I couldn't
answer them. He totally baffled me."
Some questions, you see, are unanswerable. Why is Inka Cola
yellow? Why is Bogota, Colombia, the pothole and mad-driver
capital of the world? Or the one every player asks, sooner or
later, usually while gazing stubble-faced into a hotel mirror:
What am I doing here? The tour's orientation booklet provides
hints: You finished in the top 60 on last year's South American
money list or are a former tournament winner or hold a card from
either the PGA Tour or the European tour or paid a $390 fee and
played for a spot at a qualifying tournament.
But the booklet ducks the truth: that some players are destined
to play in South America. How else to explain Blair Piercy, the
young Canadian who decided that a change of latitude was the
best medicine for a broken heart? Or John Rudolph, the
19-year-old college dropout from San Diego whose poignant answer
to the mirror query is, "There was really nothing else I could
Not that South America is much clearer about its own destiny. In
the equatorial countries, rifle-bearing guards in bulletproof
vests greet downtown shoppers. In Buenos Aires the mothers of
Plaza de Mayo stand vigil for their children, Argentina's
thousands of "disappeared." Peru, with its history of political
instability and Shining Path terrorism, is traditionally the
most menacing stop. "Three years ago they were revising the
constitution while we were here, and there were 10,000
demonstrators outside the hotel door," says tour veteran Ted
Gleason. "The police were all lined up with their shields and
helmets and truncheons."
Hedonism flourishes. Some players succumb to the Latin diet,
gorging on seviche (delicious seafood cocktails marinated in
lime juice), fried plantains with hot salsa, grilled steaks and
sausages--washed down, perhaps, with a longneck bottle of Nevada
cerveza. Others give in to the young women in tight jeans and
platform shoes who follow the tour. ("That's a par-5 there,"
says a Brazilian player, watching a six-foot blonde carry a
plate of toast across a dining room in Guayaquil.) At 4 a.m. the
golfers playing cards in the hotel lobby don't even look up as
incoming players tango toward the elevators. "This is a
late-night tour," Cook says, "and South American nightlife is
Now you're laughing. This tour is some kind of joke, right? A
place where disappointed golfers go to keep the dream alive?
Tell that to Philip Jonas as he stands over his tee shot on the
final hole of the Peru Open.
Pressure doesn't need a sound track, but a windblown stand of
bamboo creaks and moans behind him. Jonas is a warm and modest
South African who lives in British Columbia with his
teaching-pro wife, Pat. He hasn't won a tournament in six years,
but here he is with an un golpe lead over Pedro Martinez. If
Jonas can draw his tee shot along the drip line of the big trees
lining the right side of this dogleg par-4 and not snap-hook it
over the white out-of-bounds stakes in the trees to the left, he
will probably claim the $27,000 first prize and mock-silver
trophy that goes to Peru's numero uno. And if he's human, he's
thinking of the Sarazen. The winner of the Peru Open gets a pass
into the $1.9 million Sarazen World Championship held every fall
in Braselton, Ga.
Does the example of David Ogrin make his heart beat faster?
Ogrin, one of golf's nomads and, since 1983, a persistent
plodder on the PGA Tour, won the Peru Open in 1988 and '94.
Recently, in San Antonio, Ogrin won his first Tour event,
withstanding a charge by Tiger Woods. His wins in Peru, Ogrin
said, had kept the fire alive and hardened him to final-round
Don't think. Hit. Jonas swings and launches a shot at the right
tree line. "Hook!" he yells. "Hook!" And like a trained hawk,
the ball slides left and drops obediently to the fairway. Ten
minutes later Jonas holes the winning putt and thrusts his arms
into the air. "His nickname for a couple of years was Rain Man,"
fifth-place finisher Scott Dunlap says afterward, watching his
friend cuddle the trophy on a clubhouse sofa. "There was always
a cloud over his head. Now he's afraid they'll cancel the
Sarazen on him."
The drawback to Jonas's victory is that few people in the
English-speaking world will ever hear of it. Cook is working on
a TV contract that will make South American tour highlights
available around the globe in 1997; for now, tour news moves by
the player grapevine and via GolfWeb, a data-cluttered tributary
of the Internet. "Television is the key for us," Cook says,
shifting unexpectedly into nonironic mode. "International and
local TV rights will provide income for the tournament
committees and allow us to sell tourwide sponsorships."
Television could also fuel expansion to Central America, the
Caribbean and Mexico, realizing Cook's dream of an
eight-month-long, 25-tournament Latin American tour.
What Cook has to overcome is the perception of South American
golf as peasants in ponchos playing on dung-covered courses. In
reality the tour's courses tend to be well-maintained layouts
like the Club de Golf del Uruguay, which Alister MacKenzie
designed around the time he was building Augusta National. One
country, Argentina, supports a European-style golf culture with
perhaps 70,000 players, 250 courses and an infrastructure of
golf shops and lighted driving ranges. Colombia, with 18,000
players and about 100 courses, is also golfer-friendly, although
the country's touring pros have not had much success.
But how does one explain Paraguay? With three courses and
perhaps 350 golfers, Paraguay is home to Martinez and four other
players who, between them, have won 30 international
championships. Carlos Franco got his start when he was five and
was given coins for mimicking golfers' swings on the 6th hole of
the Asuncion Golf Club. In 1993 Franco qualified for the Asian
tour by topping the South American money list. In '94 he led the
Asian tour, qualifying him for the Japanese tour. Since then
Franco has won four Japanese tournaments and more than $1.3
million. Two of Franco's six golfing brothers, Ramon and Angel,
have won in South America, and countryman Raul Fretes has been
national champion of four countries--Peru, Uruguay, Chile and
China. "I can't explain why we have such good players," says
Fretes, who at 31 dreams of playing in the U.S. "Golf is not
that popular in Paraguay, and most of us have never had lessons."
Then there are those moments that play like the third reel of an
anxiety nightmare. The two charter buses are pulling out of the
Buenos Aires airport for the four-hour haul to Rosario when
someone spots a golfer inside the terminal, running along the
glass wall and waving frantically. "Cookie, stop the bus!" a
player yells. "Mayday!" shouts another, tickled by the sight of
the player pressed against the glass, arms outstretched, like a
fly caught in an ice cube.
The bus shudders to a halt, and the driver hops off to retrieve
the castaway and his bags. Schmid, watching from his recliner
seat, says, "I think you should fine this guy, Cookie. Slow play!"
These are the times when the South American tour seems like just
that--a tour. Most of the players take the same flights between
cities, with Cook and Bronger supervising baggage handling and
distributing boarding passes. Buses move the players between
airports and hotels. Buses carry golfers to and from the
courses. "That's a big reason for the great camaraderie on this
tour," says Dunlap, who joined the group in Peru two days after
missing the cut at the Disney Classic in Orlando. "You share the
experience with so many guys."
Sometimes the system breaks down. Two years ago an airline
overbooked a flight from Montevideo to Asuncion, and Cook had to
charter a bus for 30 stranded golfers. The trip, which lasted 25
1/2 hours, took the travelers into Argentina, then Brazil,
Argentina again, Brazil again and finally into Paraguay, with
customs and immigration at each crossing. The players shivered
in the mountains and sweltered on the plains, and everything
meltable in the luggage melted.
Rosario at 1 a.m. still has a pulse. Late diners linger over
checkered tablecloths. Neon helados signs glow in ice-cream
shops. Lovers embrace in the shadows of sprawling fig trees.
However, the buses stop on a dark street with shuttered
storefronts. The lobby and bar of the Presidente Hotel are posh
enough, but--how to put it?--slender. "It's the narrowest hotel
I ever stayed at," Cook has warned the players, but they are not
prepared for elevators the size of phone booths and rooms as
cozy as cupboards. "I'm not staying here," Schmid says, spinning
in the lobby like a cornered cat. "This is a joke."
For once, Cook has no answers. Clearly his casual authority
wears well on the players. He is their guide and portent and, in
a way, their inspiration--living proof that a lifetime of
letdowns can add up to something grand. Cook is divorced and has
a B.A. in English from Long Beach State. He played on the
African and the European tours in 1972 but failed to win his
card at the 1973 PGA Tour Q school. Afterward, a shoulder injury
nudged him into the real estate game. "It took me a year to
forgive golf," Cook says, "but when I got the interest back, I
decided to play tournaments for the travel. I realized early on
that I wasn't going to be a world-beater."
Unless, of course, he could wear the world out. Cook has had
three passports in 24 years, one of which maxed out at more than
100 pages. He has played in 33 different national championships,
including one British Open. An infrequent winner--the 1978 South
Australia PGA Championship is his biggest prize--Cook began to
dabble in tour administration in the '80s, assisting Asian tour
director John Benda.
Cook's path and South America's crossed in 1990 when Dr. Berger
contacted Benda for help in establishing the Peru Open and other
regional events as something more than tournaments staged by a
few friends. Benda advised the Peruvians and the other South
American golf committees to schedule their tournaments on
consecutive weeks, establish common rules and regulations,
negotiate lower room rates with hotels and put the money
earmarked for appearance fees into bigger purses. In other
words, establish a tour.
The South Americans complied and brought in Benda as
coordinator. The first event, the 1991 Venezuela Open, attracted
50 players, including Benda and Cook. "In the beginning the guys
came down more as a vacation than as a serious attempt to play
golf," Cook says. "We used to have guys who would shoot 82. Me,
These days the fields are stronger (45 pros broke par for 72
holes at the La Sabana Open in Bogota in October), and the South
American tour operates independently of Benda and the Asian
tour. "I'm thinking of moving our headquarters to Miami," Cook
says. "A move like that might make the sponsors more
comfortable." Two part-time employees, meanwhile, conduct some
of the tour's business from Cook's home office in Seal Beach,
Players keep peeking into the room, trying to catch a glimpse of
the old golfer. He sits in a comfortable armchair. Everything in
the clubhouse seems to complement his calm dignity: the polished
plank-and-peg floorboards, the stucco walls, the framed
clippings showing him with pleated pants and dark, slicked-back
hair. His first tournament win came here, at the Rosario Golf
Club, in 1942. He was also the club pro for two years in the
'40s. "I come here because I like the golf," says Roberto
DeVicenzo, the famous warmth still evident. "No pay. These
people are friends."
Someone mentions the Masters. Not the famous mishap of 1968, in
which DeVicenzo forfeited a possible victory by carelessly
signing for a higher score than he had shot--but the tournament
of today. Will he ever return? Might he one day grace the dawn
at Augusta and smack a ceremonial drive with Byron Nelson, Gene
Sarazen and Snead?
DeVicenzo shakes his head. To visit again with old friends, old
players, he would like that...but to be in the clubhouse and not
on the course...impossible. "I want to play the way I used to
play," he says. "I don't want to show my game in public."
Today is different. Today, in the pro-am of the Litoral Open,
the 1967 British Open champion will play to support the new
tour. "This one is really a South American tour," he says,
comparing Cook's operation to the handful of winter events that
attracted stars such as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in the
'60s. "The other one was a Caribbean tour--Jamaica, Puerto Rico,
Panama. The prize money was just $10,000 or $12,000."
Someone mentions the South American tour's purses--as little as
$80,000 in Colombia and Uruguay, as much as $310,000 for the
Argentine Open and $200,000 for the season-ending Volvo Masters
in Brazil. "Is that enough?" he is asked. "Will players continue
DeVicenzo nods. "They come here to get the money, but also to
get the power." He thumps his chest. "Inside. To win!"
An hour later, in bright sunshine, the old golfer shows what he
means by the power. On the 2nd hole Dunlap, the designated pro
in his fivesome, smacks a 285-yard drive. DeVicenzo, 73, answers
with a perfect draw up Dunlap's tailpipe, about 280. "Is that
unbelievable?" asks Phillip Hatchett, one of a half-dozen tour
players in the gallery. At the green Jonas asks DeVicenzo for
his autograph. The great man complies, and Jonas carefully
covers his treasure with plastic.
On the next hole DeVicenzo rifles a long iron over the flag, a
shot that has the young golfers rubbing their eyes. "If I could
hit like that," Jonas whispers, "I'd turn pro." On the 4th
DeVicenzo wedges to four feet and makes birdie. "That's tempo at
its best," says another player.
But the golfer who seems most elevated by DeVicenzo's play is
Dunlap. "I'm not trying to outdrive him," the 33-year-old says
with a grin. "I'm trying real hard to beat him." Whatever his
aim, Dunlap looks like a man who has bitten into magic fruit.
His drives whistle, as they must have in 1995 when he won the
Canadian Masters by 10 strokes. His iron shots shape themselves
to wind and terrain. Dunlap is five under par at the turn, and
when he stops in the clubhouse for a soft drink, he practically
glows. It's as if someone from memory-impaired Macondo has taken
a soft brush and written across him: WINNER.
Five days later the results crawl out of a fax machine. Scott
Dunlap, with a 17-under-par 267, has won the 62nd Campeonato
Abierto Regional del Litoral. This must be true, but it merits a
late-night phone call to Cook in Uruguay.
"Yes, that happened," he says from his room in the Balmoral
Plaza Hotel. "But the really interesting thing that happened
was...." And Cook tells this story about a club member at the
Rosario barbecue who hacked at his meat with a gaucho knife
yanked from a sheath behind his back.
It's a funny story--not at all implausible--and it ends with
Jeff Schmid counting his money twice.