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PGA looks to South America

Camilo Villegas of Colombia, at the British Open in July, welcomes growth of the PGA in South America. (Associated Press)
Camilo Villegas of Colombia, at the British Open in July, welcomes growth of the PGA in South America. (Associated Press)

PGA Tour executives are feeling a samba beat.

South America seems poised to become professional golf’s next frontier. But it was not the booming drives of Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas or the Spiderman routine of Columbia’s Camilo Villegas or the two major victories by Argentina’s Angel Cabrera that piqued the tour’s interest.

That came a few years before, when Carlos Franco of Paraguay was playing the Texas swing of the Colonial and Byron Nelson championships.

After Franco finished tied for sixth in his first Masters appearance in 1999, his country threw him a parade. When he won in New Orleans in 2000, fresh off his honor as 1999 tour rookie of the year, it marked Franco’s third victory in 12 months, a feat surpassed only by Tiger Woods.

When he arrived in Texas during that heyday, Franco was swarmed by Spanish-speaking reporters and television cameras.

“All of a sudden we had all this Latino and Hispanic media at a golf tournament. I’d never seen that before,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said last month.

Now Finchem is ready to explore.

By the end of the year, the PGA Tour and the Tour de las Americas might announce its plan for a feeder system that will allow South American players to qualify for the Nationwide Tour.

Tour officials have spent the past 18 months talking to event promoters, national federations and the Tour de las Americas and searching for an umbrella sponsor for the program. Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president of communications and international affairs, said though it’s still in the investigative stages, he hopes for a 2012 launch.

It’s part of the lead-up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where golf returns to competition with 72-hole stroke play tournaments for men and women with 60-player fields.

“We wanted to have more players from that part of the world at least have a fighting chance to represent their countries in the Olympics in 2016,” Votaw said in a telephone interview from the British Open. “We know that if there is some home-grown talent, it’s only going to increase the atmosphere of the Games with our sport. We want to put the best foot forward because it’s the first time since 1904 that golf will be (included) and we want it to be a success.”

Added Finchem, “Growing the game is important, especially as we enter the Olympic era.”

But Finchem and Votaw do not gloss over the fact that the tour also has marketing on its mind. According to the 2010 census, the Hispanic population in the United States saw a 43 percent increase from 2000, over four times the growth of the total population. While the largest groups were from Mexico (up 54 percent), Puerto Rico (up 36 percent) and Cuba (up 44 percent), the total number of U.S. inhabitants from Central America rose 137 percent, from South America 105 percent.

“The Hispanic portion of our fan base has had double-digit growth for the last four or five years,” Finchem said. “It’s perking along. The long-term evolution of that area for the country is very strong, too. You look at where the demographics in the United States are headed in the next generation.”

Votaw also acknowledged the growing presence of the Hispanic media.

“In certain markets that’s the case,” he said. “Telemundo, Univision networks that cater specifically to the Hispanic community… . If we can find a way to tap into that media coverage, we see that as being a significant part of our potential success there.”

The Nationwide Tour already has events in Mexico and Columbia, the Mexico Open (sponsored by Banamex) and the Bogota Open (sponsored by Samsung). But Votaw looks at the world rankings, which include only 14 South Americans — eight from Argentina — among the top 500 and sees an opportunity for development.

“Camilo’s emergence played a large part in our interest in having a Nationwide event in Columbia,” Votaw said of Villegas. “We didn’t have a television partner in Columbia before Camilo’s emergence, now we have a very strong television presence. Someone like Johnny Vegas in the now-Humana Challenge changed his country’s president’s view of golf in Venezuela. Argentina with Angel Cabrera winning a couple of major championships, the fact that Argentina has had such a long and strong history of golf, we see the building blocks of what can happen in that part of the world if there can be a tour organized on a more solid economic footing.”

Naturally, the South Americans on tour seemed enthused by the idea of the feeder program.

“Since I heard about that, I think it’s a huge door for all my colleagues in South America, especially in Argentina,” said Argentina’s Andres Romero, through his interpreter Marcos Virasoro. “It’s a huge opportunity to enter the big world here, especially if you can take the Nationwide Tour card through this.

“Every time I play a tournament down there in Argentina, I’m amazed how well these guys are playing. They deserve a chance to play here.”

Vegas learned the game with a broomstick and a rock and played on Venezuelan courses supported by the oil business. His coach, Franci Betancourt, now a golf instructor in Houston, said there are no public courses in that country so the game is not affordable for most.

But Vegas said it’s more than just giving young South Americans equipment. They need preparation for playing a major golf tour.

“It’s really hard coming here,” Vegas said. “You have to deal with so many things with the language that makes it even harder. If you start giving more tours to those guys, I’m sure we’re going to get a few more players here.”

Villegas said he would give the program all the support he could.

“You’ve got China that’s growing really fast and the Middle East. Why stop there?” Villegas said. “You’ve got to keep moving. South America is definitely an area where the game needs to keep growing. The game is global, why not keep moving south?”

Finchem’s focus is also global.

“We had the Chinese men’s team over here last year for six weeks of training at TPC Sawgrass,” Finchem said. “We’re working with them on growth-of-the-game programs. Same thing in India.

“It’s in the interest of the sport here that the sport over there — wherever over there is — grows.”