Tour excited to continue to grow golf in South America

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March 03, 2011
Art Stricklin, Special to PGATOUR.COM

BOGOTA, Colombia -- The road from the Bogota International Airport to this week's Pacific Rubiales Bogota Open is lined with construction. There are miles upon miles of new and promising infrastructure coming to this South American capital city of eight million people.

The same could be said of this country's once battered international image.

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This is the second year that the Nationwide Tour has come to historic Bogota Country Club, founded in 1917, following the season opener in neighboring Panama.

"We are delighted to be back in Colombia. We felt South America was the place to grow our brand," said Nationwide Tour President Bill Calfee, who has been here for a full week of pre-tournament festivities, which included Tour players hitting off a ten-story downtown office building across to a temporary green set up in a Bogota park.

Momentum, which Colombians at every level understand because of their beloved soccer teams, is moving in golf's favor here. This is something players competing in the Nationwide Tour's $600,000 total purse tournament understand.

"Colombia is evolving, golf is evolving. We have had trouble with our image, but events like this show people in the region and worldwide we are all not like that," said Jose Garrido, a Cali, Colombia native. Garrido played golf at BYU, but has returned to live in Cali and play on the South American tour.

"In America, turning pro and playing golf is seen as a profession, but it's not the same thing here," Garrido added. "Now, everybody wants to be Camilo [Villegas]. I will go out on a limb and say junior and amateur golf is booming here because of what has happened."

Native son and PGA TOUR superstar Villegas is a three-time winner on the TOUR and his brother Manuel is playing in the event at Bogota Country Club this week.

Four-time PGA TOUR winner Notah Begay knows plenty about growing golf from a non-traditional background, having becoming the most successful Native American golfer ever. He said the Tour is doing the right thing with their second Colombian tournament.

"People this week will see how pro golf is done and done right," Begay said before teeing off in the rain-delayed first round.

"This is good exposure for young players here, good exposure for Nationwide Tour players and good exposure for Colombian companies who may want to advertise with golfers.

"There are 25 or more of these players who will be on the PGA TOUR next year and maybe a Colombian company will want to sponsor one of them. This is how you make connections with a new market."

Calfee said this one week was an important one for the Nationwide Tour and golf overall.

South America will host the Olympics for the first time in neighboring Brazil in 2016, which will include golf for the first time in 112 years.

"You have the Olympics coming here; you have our Nationwide Tour event in Panama for the last eight years. We are slowly putting our PGA TOUR flag in South America," Calfee said.

According to Calfee, discussions are underway for the PGA TOUR to take over the Tour de las Americas and use it as a pathway to the Nationwide Tour or even PGA TOUR.

Calfee also said the Nationwide Tour was in discussions to hold an event in Chile in 2012.

"Some of our TOUR partners are down here and it just makes business sense for us to be here. Let's keep coming and maybe bring a PGA TOUR event or World Golf Championship here."

To assure the security for this week's event, Calfee met with the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia and the country's Vice President and had many discussions with the national police.

"This was not possible 10 years ago, but over the last 10 years we have a new country," said Stephanie Sanchez, with ProExport Colombia, one of the tournament's sponsors.

"This country didn't exist, but over the last 10 years now it does."

Andrew Magee, who turns 49 in May, is playing this week to try to stay sharp for his pending Champions Tour career. He has seen professional golf through many levels as four-time PGA TOUR champion, a media commentator and a now a part-time player.

He said the time is right for an increased presence in the region.

"Anytime a player like Camilo wins in a country that is not golf-rich, that's a big deal. I've never been here before, but in my short stay the people are either golf hungry or party hungry, or both, but either way it works for us and the Tour."

Art Stricklin is a freelance contributor for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.

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