In Alexandre Rocha’s eyes, the Web.com Tour’s arrival in his homeland could not happen soon enough.
“Golf in Brazil is still a crawling newborn,” said the São Paulo native, who two years ago became his nation’s first in two decades to secure a PGA TOUR card.
If anything, Brazilian golf has endured nearly a decade of stagnation as the game’s global advance somehow missed the world’s fifth-largest nation. This week’s Brasil Classic presented by HSBC, Rocha said, might be just the kick-start this sporting tot needs.
“I know that this is the single most important golf-related event that’s taken place in Brazil in the last 12 years. There’s no comparison,” Rocha said.
Just as it did three years ago in Colombia and last year in Chile, the Web.com Tour has a chance to open doors.
“They’re investing in golf,” said Web.com Tour president Bill Calfee, “but there’s certainly a long way to go in terms of growth and participation and fan interest.”
It was in 2001 that the European Tour held its last tournament in Brazil, a rain-shortened stop that attracted few marquee names. A young Rocha, less than a year into his first pro season, tied for 20th after a third-round 64.
After that, Brazil seemed to fall off golf’s radar. While Argentina’s Angel Cabrera captured two major titles and Colombia’s Camilo Villegas was acclaimed a rising star, Brazil had no presence to help establish a niche behind almighty fútbol.
Soccer, of course, may be the country’s best-known export – boasting five World Cup crowns and a lineage of one-named royalty that runs from Pelé to Zico to Romario to Ronaldo to Kaká.
Next on the Brazilian sports hierarchy is auto racing, its place fueled by former Formula One driving champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna. All other sports, Rocha said, “are a distant third to motorsports, which is a distant second to soccer.”
With golf set to make its Olympic return at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has become a key market. The country is home to 115 golf courses, with more than two dozen opening in the past five or six years.
“It sounds like a big boom,” Rocha said, “but consider that Brazil is about the same [land] size as the United States. It’s not much.”
By way of comparison, golfers can find some 170 golf courses within an hour’s drive of downtown Orlando. Then again, Colombia has just 50 golf courses and Chile is home to 15.
Hey, it’s a start.
Golf has shown a recent uptick in Brazilia participation, Rocha said, but in an atypical manner. Wealthy businessmen have embraced the game, often encouraging their adult children to join them on the course.
“But they don’t have children who are 10 or 12 years old,” he said. “We want to see progress from the beginning – children, then amateurs.”
Rocha played an active junior schedule while growing up in São Paulo, eventually landing a scholarship to Mississippi State. Several tournaments, though, have sadly fallen by the wayside over the years.
“[Kids] lost interest because they lost their exposure to it,” Rocha said. “If you don’t expose your child to something, you don’t know whether they’ll like it or not.”
Calfee suggested Brazil might have appeared on the Web.com Tour schedule sooner, but conversations were slower to develop than those in Colombia and Chile.
“It took a couple of years for that conversation to sort of migrate to a more serious conversation,” Calfee said. “As we got to Bogotá and Chile, they saw how good those events were. That pushed it a little harder to get something done.”
The project also got a big boost from HSBC, which already had been promoting an LPGA event in Brazil and was looking to add a men’s component.
The banking giant this week has flown in Hall of Famer Gary Player, who gave a clinic for top Brazilian amateurs Tuesday and was set for a pro-am round Wednesday with top amateur Rafael Becker.
“The growth in Brazil and Latin America will be tremendous,” Player said. “The global game of golf is developing at a rapid pace and there's one thing I've learned in my career – change is the price of survival.”
Brazil’s golf heritage largely revolves around a quartet of pros. Mario Gonzalez won eight Brazilian Opens and shared low-amateur honors at the 1948 Open Championship, one of four appearances in Britain. He also played in two U.S. Opens and two Masters.
Gonzalez’s son, Jaime, played college golf at Oklahoma State and was a PGA TOUR member in 1980 and ’81 before turning to the European Tour. He later settled in São Paulo and became head pro at São Fernando Golf Club – where a young Rocha became a pupil.
“There was a handing down in generations,” said Rocha, whose grandfather was a founding member at São Fernando. “Jaime was responsible for teaching me how to play golf. … I’m not from the same family, but I’m very fortunate to be involved with the Gonzalez family.”
On the women’s side, Angela Park’s abbreviated LPGA career included a pair of top-three finishes at the U.S. Women’s Open before she abruptly retired in 2010.
“We’re looking at [Brazil] long-term,” Calfee said, pointing to the solid footing the Web.com Tour now holds in Panama and Colombia. “It’s going to take a while, but we’re in it long-term. We’re not going to take it to the Olympics and then be gone.”
Rocha, meantime, hopes this week’s event will inspire young Brazilians the way he once was.
“It’s an opportunity for people to look at the future of the PGA TOUR playing in their hometown,” he said. “And it’s a great wakeup call for professionals in Brazil who want to play golf for a living. It’s going to demonstrate what level they need to get to.
“This Web.com Tour event hopefully will be the beginning of a renaissance of great events coming through.”