Latin pipeline needs to be tapped

Camilo Villegas (left) and his brother Manuel smile during a golf exhibition on March 18, 2009, in Bogota.

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico – Manuel Villegas knows well the talent level it takes to make the PGA Tour.

He shares a house and surname with the 12th-ranked player in the world – his older brother, Camilo. Their alma mater, the University of Florida, has produced more than its fair share of touring pros.

What has surprised Manuel Villegas since turning pro in ’08 is the level of play away from the Big Show, a realization after starts on five continents.

“They post good numbers everywhere,” said Villegas, 25. “People play great no matter where you play.”

It’s a good thing for Villegas – but bad for his frequent-flyer miles – that he’s nearing status on a major tour for the first time. Two top 15s in four Nationwide starts this year have him about $20,000 from gaining special temporary membership for the rest of the year.

Villegas’ name gives him an advantage in his quest for a card. Though it must be frustrating to be recognized for someone else’s accomplishments, especially when possessing talent of his own, he handles comparisons to his elder sibling well.

“I’m privileged to be my brother’s brother,” said Villegas, the 2008 Colombian Open champ. “It’s opened a lot of doors for me.”

Henrique Lavie, commissioner of the Tour de las Americas and a former touring pro from Venezuela, wants to open more doors to the U.S. for Latin American players.

Lavie’s dream is to partner with the PGA Tour for a series of Latin American events that would serve as a feeder to the Nationwide Tour. The top performers would earn Nationwide Tour cards; more players would get spots in the Nationwide events in Panama, Colombia and Mexico. The series’ top player might even get a World Golf Championships berth.

In Lavie’s vision, the new events also would offer Official World Golf Ranking points, which could help more Latin American countries reach the Olympics.

Lavie offers a possible name for his venture which could help both tours expand their reach: the PGA Tour de las Americas.

“It would be finally a recognition for a region in golf,” Lavie said. “For me personally, it would mean a dream achieved. My goal, since I started, is to have a better and more consistent tour for my players.”

Founded in 1991 as the South American Tour, the Tour de las Americas (its name since 2000) has transformed Latin American golf from a collection of individually staged events into an organized tour. It joined the International Federation of PGA Tours in ’07 as an associate member.

South America is the only continent other than Antarctica that does not have a tour that gets spots in the World Golf Championships or Official World Golf Ranking points (outside of co-sanctioned events).

Lavie concedes that his tour has had trouble meeting some of the criteria for events to gain world-ranking points, namely field strength, purse size and an event’s annual consistency. His proposal will help meet those thresholds.

Granting tour cards to members of a foreign tour undoubtedly will meet resistance from those who say players should earn cards the old-fashioned way: through Q-School. That’s why it’s important to start small – maybe one or two Nationwide cards to the TLA’s best.

Golf is going global, and awarding spots to foreign players is a good way to help it develop in other countries. Good performances inspire others. The bad showings may be even more valuable; they show a player, and his peers, how difficult the pro game really is.

Rafael Campos, a three-time Puerto Rican Amateur champ, has played in the past three Puerto Rico Opens.

“My college teammates say, ‘You’re so lucky,’ ” said Campos, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth. “You see a different perspective and know what to expect, so you can work hard on things you need to work hard on.”

It’s ironic this talk came the same week as the WGC-CA Championship, where all of the tours involved lost spots in the field because of pace-of-play issues. The Asian, Australasian, Japan and Sunshine tours were hardest hit, their allotments cut from three players apiece to two. It was a change likely not noticed, but felt across the globe.

As golf expands globally, the WGCs should follow suit. Most international players at Doral were from established golf regions. Players from developing regions deserve a chance.

Yes, there might be some dead weight at the bottom of the field, but a true world championship should be an open affair, as much a learning experience for players from regions new to the world stage as a celebration of the planet’s best.

As Manuel Villegas has discovered, there are talented players in all corners.

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