PGA TOUR Latinoamerica showing great potential

Andres Echavarria of Colombia shares the 36-hole lead with Tommy Cocha in Mexico.
September 06, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

The news could hardly have been better Thursday for El PGA TOUR Latinoamerica, the PGA TOUR's just-launched schedule of professional tour-quality events across Latin America.

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For openers, after two rounds of the Mundo Maya Open presented by Corona, the tournament co-leaders Tommy Cocha, of Salta, Argentina, and Andres Echavarria, of Medellin, Colombia, set a torrid pace of 12 under, two strokes clear of the field, on the formidable 7,304-yard "El Jaguar" Course designed and built by Jack Nicklaus.

Secondly, the new tour couldn't have asked for early leaders who so neatly fit the bill for the fledgling tour and what it hopes to achieve. Each is an excellent young player with the ability and desire to one day reach the sport's highest levels. And while they're working on it, they presumably will be setting an example for younger golfers in Central and South America, Mexico and parts of the Carribean -- all of which are under-represented at elite levels on the world golf stage relative to their population bases.

In his remarks before the start of the tournament on Wednesday, PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem said, "We believe that now is the right time to start this tour," explaining that its goals are to "help develop more elite players from this region of the world," and citing Camilo Villegas of Colombia, Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela, Esteban Toledo of Mexico and Angel Cabrera, the Argentine star and winner of the 2007 U.S. Open and the 2009 Masters.

Cabrera, like his countryman, the legendary Roberto De Vicenzo, came from the caddie ranks from the age of 10, and learned the game by other caddies for money. He said he would have benefited greatly from opportunities like this new tour presents: 11 events with with purses between $125,000 and $150,000 from now until December; the top five players on the Order of Merit earning playing privileges on the Tour for 2013.

"It was much more difficult for me," Cabrera said. "Back in 1995, I had to win the Order of Merit in South America to win a spot in the Asian Tour. Then I had to go on three attempts to get into the European Tour. I was only able to play on the PGA TOUR when I got myself inside the best 50 in the World Golf Ranking."

That would have been in 1999, when Cabrera was 30.

"This new tour is perfect for players from the region that can earn their way into a main tour with less traveling and with an affordable budget," Cabrera said.

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Cocha, 21, who managed to post nine birdies and just one bogey during his second-round 64 on El Jaguar -- built inside the Mayan City of Dzibilchaltun -- already understands what Cabrera meant. A diminutive player who stands 5-feet-5 and weighs 128 pounds, Cocha would surely find it a bit difficult to withstand the wear and tear Cabrera did.

"This is a very good opportunity that the TOUR has given us," Cocha said after his round. "Given that it's the first time (Latin) America has something that will help further our careers."

There are 108 players with full exemptions on El PGA TOUR Latinoamerica. They come from 19 nations, mainly in Latin America, but with a smattering from the United States, the Dominican Republic and the South African nation of Zimbabwe. All won their playing privileges over the summer at Qualifying School in either Miami (at the White Course at the Doral Resort and Spa) or at the Hurlingham Club in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Echavarria, who is 24 and already a polished player, also made nine birdies on Thursday during his round of 65. Like his countryman and neighbor from Medellin, Camilo Villegas, Echavarria attended the University of Florida and excelled on the Gator golf team, earning All-America honors in his senior season last year and winning the Gator Invitational and the Southeastern Conference Championship.

Based on his own experiences getting to the TOUR, Villegas, 30, a three-time TOUR winner, said he believes the new tour will benefit players like Echavarria and also will be a catalyst for the growth of the game throughout Latin America.

"When I was growing up in Colombia, I know the dream of making it to the PGA TOUR felt like a huge mountain to climb," he said. "The odds were definitely stacked against you. But with PGA TOUR Latinoamerica, young players will feel a connection to the TOUR and will be able to see that their dream is possible.

"I think it will also help spread interest in golf in Latin America and cause more young athletes to pick up the game, which will produce more professionals down the road, much like we have seen in Asia recently and other areas around the world."

El PGA TOUR Latinoamerica is based on a developmental tour model introduced way back in 1990, when the TOUR announced the launch of the Hogan Tour -- which became the Tour. There was no way to know then what kind of impact a developmental tour with 30 events carrying average purses of $101,000 would have on the elite level.

But think about it: nine of the 12 members of the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team played the Tour; alumni of the Tour have produced 320 TOUR wins, including 17 major championships, one World Golf Hall of Fame member (Ernie Els) and two FedExCup champions (Jim Furyk and Bill Haas).

Think there might be a potential 2016 Olympics gold medalist in golf amongst four classes of El PGA TOUR Latinoamerica players between now and then?

As they might now say in Latin America countries, "Todo es posible."

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.