Will there be another Angel Cabrera?
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the April 5, 2008, edition of Golfweek.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentines love their nicknames. Single out an Argentine who has ascended to golf’s highest levels, and chances are that player answers to a moniker given in jest. U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera was greeted by crowds last year in his native Cordoba chanting, El Pato (“The Duck’’).
To friends and strangers, Eduardo Romero is El Gato (“The Cat’’). Ageless Vicente Fernandez is simply Chino. Andres Romero, the latest evolution of the caddie-pro species, was saddled with Pigu before he could walk, but it is another epithet that Cabrera hangs on his younger countryman that sums up the state of golf in this corner of the Southern Hemisphere.
“Angel refers to Andres as the ‘Last Link,’ ” says Mark Lawrie, executive director of the Argentine Golf Association. Cabrera’s endearment is more a testament to economic reality than it is to Romero’s fearless brand of play, a style that delivered a stunning 10 birdies in 14 holes on Sunday at the ‘07 British Open before a late implosion kept him from a playoff.
The Argentine caddie, the base of a pyramid that has reared the country’s most talented players dating to Roberto De Vicenzo, is an endangered species. In Cabrera’s mind, Romero is the last of a kind. A genre doomed by pull carts and bottom lines.
“The guard is changing. It’s now the amateur ranks that are providing the new professionals,” Lawrie said. “The very successful caddie/pro mode, because the caddie around the world is dying, they are a dying breed. . . . Globalization hits you. The good things hit you, and the bad things as well.”
Without the vast caddie corps to cultivate the country’s next world-beater, Argentines have turned their attention to the daunting issue of improving accessibility.
De Vicenzo, the original Argentine caddie-pro who set a standard for those who followed with his grace in victory (1967 British Open) and defeat (1968 Masters), leaves no room for ambiguity. “Golf is life,” the 84-year-old said.
Since De Vicenzo first emerged from the mesa mesaliera, or miserable neighborhoods, of Buenos Aires, the economic plight of those who view golf as a chance to escape poverty has improved little. Much like basketball is an economic motivator for many inner-city kids in America, golf is a way out of the sprawling barrios for young Argentines.
“The national anthem is ‘win or die.’ That’s the attitude you have to have,” said Miguel Angel Carballo, a former caddie from Bahia Blanca who narrowly missed earning his PGA Tour card at the ‘07 Q-School. “When we choose a sport, you’d better be good to be able to find opportunities and wealth. Win or die. Same thing when you play soccer or any other sport.”
Yet finding new ways to identify and nurture elite players is only a fraction of the larger void as the caddie inches toward extinction. The more pressing concern is finding a way to replace the economic opportunity caddying provided for those who don’t possess the natural gifts of a Romero or Cabrera.
“When you start to be a caddie, you come from a poor family,” said Eduardo Romero, who started caddying when he was 11 for $5 per loop at Cordoba Country Club.
“You need money for food. When you’re 10, 11 years old, you start to carry the bag for food.”
In a country where nearly one quarter of the population lives below the poverty line – about $300 monthly for a family of four – carrying a bag for 18 holes can be an economic windfall.
Guillermo Perez began caddying at the Hurlingham Club, the country’s oldest club, located in the sprawling suburbs north of Buenos Aires, seven years ago. He gets $70 per loop, pulling a double shift on the weekends to earn extra cash. The job was so lucrative the 21-year-old’s family moved three blocks from Hurlingham.
“It’s a chance we’ve been given, and we’ve been able to make the most of it,” Perez said.
But even as Perez praised the economic opportunity, the bear-market reality is massed around him. It’s a warm Friday in December, and the Hurlingham’s women’s club is teeing off. Pull carts outnumber caddies 3 to 1.
“It used to be, 20 percent of the people didn’t play with caddies, 80 percent did,” said Lawrie, a member at Hurlingham. “I’d say today that is probably reversed. And we’re not talking 100 years. We’re talking 20 years’ time.”
The socioeconomic ramification of the waning caddie corps is why Lawrie made the expansion of the game’s base through improved access his primary focus when he took the executive director’s post Dec. 1, 2001.
The AGA had operated a public driving range near downtown Buenos Aires for more than two decades. Getting people interested in golf was easy; finding a place for them to play was not.
Of the country’s 284 courses, before 2001 none was open to the public. If not for the traditional caddie game on Mondays, golf was, by any measure, exclusionary.
Under Lawrie, the AGA quickly developed a plan to purchase a well-worn, 11-hole course on a former Navy base north of Buenos Aires. Eighteen days later, Argentina plunged into a financial crisis that would become known as the “black year.”
“I was thinking maybe I’d be looking for a job in February,” Lawrie said.
Lawrie kept his job, and the 11-hole layout, renamed Tarjeta de Juego – “Card Game’’ – was “dumbed down” for the sake of what Lawrie hoped would be a curious clientele. Officials reconfigured the course to a nine-hole layout, removed almost every hazard, lowered greens and softened slopes on putting surfaces.
“We took out what golf architects love to put in,” Lawrie said. “We wanted to make the golf people were going to play there as easy as possible. The trick worked.”
The course opened in 2002 along with a 30-bay driving range. Officials capped green fees at 20 pesos (about $6.45) and, at first, play was limited to Tuesday through Sunday. Demand quickly outpaced supply. The layout is now open 360 days a year, and Lawrie said it averages about 110 rounds per day.
Participation nationwide has steadily improved, in part, because of the popularity of Tarjeta de Juego, the loosening of private-club policies that traditionally had limited outside play, and increased exposure. Registered handicaps have jumped from 26,000 in 1999 to 55,000 in 2007. The number of golf courses nationwide has nearly doubled since 1990, from 148 to 284.
“Golf is a growing sport in Argentina,” Fernandez said. “It’s largely because of TV. Golf has been for the elite in Argentina for so many years. But TV has allowed people to see the game without having to ask for permission. It’s allowed those people who watched golf on TV and saw what a beautiful game it was to play. It also helped show people they could afford to play golf.”
The AGA received a partisan blow last year when Buenos Aires officials declined to renew the lease on the organization’s driving range located near the heart of the city next to the regional airport. Lawrie said he is in discussions with the new city administration and is confident the association will be able to reopen the 100-bay facility soon. The range is crucial, he said, if golf is going to compete with the country’s sport of choice – soccer.
“We must devise methods and ways of making golf user-friendly,” Lawrie said. “Especially if you’re fighting against a round ball (soccer) and all you have to do is pump it up and throw it out in a field and you’re off.”
Soccer rules in Argentina, but others are encroaching. ESPN Deportes now airs San Antonio Spurs games live thanks to Manu Ginobili’s popularity, and Golf Channel billboards tower above the Altupista a Lieha, a testament to the impact Cabrera’s U.S. Open victory had on the nation’s sports psyche.
But Lawrie is a realist. He knows he must carve golf’s niche from the scraps soccer offers.
“There’s no second after soccer. There’s soccer, and the next sport is third,” Lawrie said.
Part of the plan to pry young athletes away from soccer includes an intense junior program at Tarjeta de Juego, which de-emphasizes individuality.
Three times each day, Jose Cantero, Tarjeta de Juego’s head pro and a former touring pro in Asia and the United States, gathers groups of juniors on a patchwork practice range that stretches 250 scruffy yards.
“We’re trying to move away from golf being an individual sport,” Cantero said. “This kind of group spirit is the only way you can keep them interested. It takes the duress away from being a long-distance runner.”
Last June, the game received an unprecedented boost. Cabrera, a salt-of-earth former caddie who never has outgrown his Cordoba roots, held off Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk at Oakmont. It was the second major championship for an Argentine, the first in four decades, and, if just for a moment, golf supplanted soccer in the national headlines.
Officials already have begun devising ways to cash in on Cabrera’s heightened celebrity. During a meeting with Cabrera last year at the British Open, Lawrie suggested the AGA and Cabrera team to create a scholarship fund that would benefit an economically disadvantaged amateur. Cabrera took the suggestion a step further, suggesting the AGA create an endowment in his name that would give struggling young professionals support.
“I don’t think we took advantage when De Vicenzo won so many tournaments,” Fernandez said. “I hope we can take advantage of Angel’s victory. All of Argentina’s success this year was unbelievable. I wasn’t surprised. For so many years, I saw the potential. For me, it was only a matter of time before this happened.”
Cabrera was awarded the Olimpia de Oro (Golden Olimpia), given to Argentina’s sports person of the year. It was just the fifth time since 1954 that a golfer received the honor. Officials also moved December’s Argentine Open back a week to accommodate Cabrera’s schedule and capitalize on his popularity.
“People in Argentina are following golf more than ever. Me having won the U.S. Open, (Andres) Romero having played so well lately, and also Jose Coceres playing very well lately,” Cabrera said. “People are going to follow (golf) with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Even on soccer’s home turf, Cabrera’s breakthrough has ignited interest in golf. If Lawrie and the AGA are able to maintain that momentum without a caddie corps in a country segmented by wealth and status, he should rate his own nickname – El Mago, “the Magician.’’