Growing the game in Colombia

Children gather at Anthony Ciabattoni's golf facility near Bucaramanga, Colombia.

Anthony Ciabattoni has taken on what some might consider a colossal task in the world of golf.

As a coordinator of corporate golf outings from his native Pittsburgh, Ciabattoni, 45, found another outlet for his golf fix upon meeting now-wife Sandra, a beverage cart girl from Bucaramanga, Colombia. In a move that has him imitating Kevin Costner’s character in the movie “Field of Dreams,’’ Ciabattoni (pronounced CHEE-uh-buh-TONE-ee) spent most of his savings buying about 12 acres of land for a public golf facility near Bucaramanga, where such establishments are scarce. He calls it Tierra del Sol – “Land of the Sun.’’

As his outing business took a hit from the recession, Ciabattoni moved to Colombia to be with Sandra and to devote more time to the golf facility. Still a U.S. citizen, Ciabattoni has a Colombian travel visa.

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Anthony Ciabattoni with two aspiring golfers.

“In my heart, golf is the greatest game on the planet,” he said. “It’s an individual sport. It’s a fantastic thing to appreciate, to be able to play.”

The golf facility is not so much a profit-seeking venture as a way to bring the game to the people. In the beginning, Ciabattoni had visions of a six-hole par-3 course, a nighttime-only driving range, a pitch-and-putt area and a miniature golf course where middle- to low-income Colombians could learn the game. But 16 months into his venture, he has been able to raise only about a third of the necessary $150,000.

But as he’s building it, people are coming.

“We’re gutting it out – cutting my own grass, digging my own holes,” he said. “… We’re bare bones, but there are so many people that come every day to see it.”

Tierra del Sol is something of a family venture, as Sandra is able to communicate with workers and handle the paperwork, and Ciabattoni’s younger brother Steve, in New York, designed the facility’s Web site (www.agameforall.com).

Ciabattoni and two paid workers have carved out six pitch-and-putt holes (each with its own form, ranging from a flower to a duck to an island green). Traditional courses number nine or 18 holes, but “not here,” Ciabattoni said. The driving range is short (160 yards), theclubhouse – from which all teaching is coordinated – is a tent and the flags marking the holes are made of rebar.

The standard price at the facility for children younger than 12 is $1, and that’s good for either a bucket of balls, a round of golf or time spent with an instructor at a weekend clinic.

“I’m building the golf course for the clientele,” he said. “I know what my client is: people who work hard, without much money.”

Securing funding has been difficult. Tierra del Sol does not qualify as a non profit under the U.S. tax code because as an international sporting endeavor, the facility does not meet the requirments of either fostering international competition or being open exclusively for children. Despite the obstacle, Ciabattoni wants the facility to remain open to the entire public so that anyone interested will have a place to learn the game. He has set up a foundation called El Derecho a Jugar (“The Right to Play”) to collect donations to to fund ongoing improvements.

Ciabattoni’s mission, however, is consistent with that of the Colombian Golf Federation, the nation’s version of the USGA. Manuel De La Rosa, the federation’s honorary president after serving 14 years as president, said the organization is focused on teaching children.

“Tony comes in because what he does, in Bucaramanga, it just fits with the purpose of the Colombian Golf Federation,” De La Rosa said.

Ciabattoni delivered a proposal to the federation in the hopes of funding his project, and De La Rosa said he hopes to make that a reality. Should the proposal be approved, De La Rosa said the federation could fund up to 50 percent of Ciabattoni’s total costs.

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Learning the game in Colombia.

“The only limitation is space, but I think he developed quite an interesting project there, and you can work with kids, and that’s our main concern,” de la Rosa said.

There are only about 55 golf courses in Colombia, and according to de la Rosa, just two – both in the capital, Bogota – are public. Others are semi-private.

In the country of about 45 million, De La Rosa estimates that 15,000 to 18,000 are golfers. There are 14,103 golfers registered with the country’s handicap system.

“There’s a lot of poverty, but there’s also a lot of middle class, lower middle class that have no opportunity of all,” Ciabattoni said of the area surrounding his facility. “I basically said this is what I want to do. . . . If I was going to be in Colombia, I wasn’t going to go work at a private club, I was going to try to bring golf to the people.”

The facility opened to the public in July, and Ciabattoni continues to spread the word. He is pursuing Colombian donors and has spoken with two of the country’s most recognizable players: PGA Tour star Camilo Villegas and Maria Jose Uribe, who recently turned pro after her sophomore season at UCLA.

Villegas, whom Ciabattoni describes as the heart and soul of Colombian golf, is managed by IMG, which Ciabattoni has approached for help.

Uribe, who is from Bucaramanga and lives 20 minutes from the facility, has a similar mission in her home country. With her family, she has created FORE, an organization that also aims to help school-age children by providing libraries and centers for activities such as dance and art.

Uribe has helped Ciabattoni make connections in Bucaramanga and is eager to see how Tierra del Sol develops.

“I have my foundation that I’m raising a lot of money for, so we’ll see what happens,” Uribe said. “I’m definitely interested in his project, and I just want to see how it develops.”

Uribe, who learned the game on two private courses in Bucaramanga, recognizes the need for such a facility in Colombia.

“Everything with Camilo Villegas and stuff, kids are liking (golf) more, and all the little kids want to learn how to play, but it’s kind of hard when you’re not a member of a course,” she said. “So it’s growing within the golf courses, but getting the game to the lower classes is kind of hard.”

With the push to include golf in the Olympics, beginning with the 2016 Games, Ciabattoni’s initiative might be at the beginning of golf’s global expansion into the developing world.

“I can only hope that it’s a success seven years in the future,’’ he said, “But for now we’re still teaching one kid at a time.”

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Contact Tony Ciabattoni at tonygolf16@gmail.com, or visit his Web site at www.agameforall.com.

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