Insider: Players embracing new experiences during Latin America swing

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
The Tour is making their second stop in the Latin America swing this week in Colombia.
February 27, 2013
Jeff Shain,

D.J. Brigman has seen the inner workings of the Panama Canal. A year ago, he ventured into Chile’s wine country to sample some of the local blends.

Certainly, the New Mexico pro is on business during the Tour’s annual swing through Latin America. But as he’s grown more accustomed to the rhythms and manners of new locales, he doesn’t mind getting out among the gente.

“As I’ve become a little more experienced traveler,” Brigman said, “I’m not afraid to go see a little bit of the town.”

Others may steer clear of such tourist fare, preferring to maintain focus on the task at hand. No matter the approach, though, players almost certainly will find some point at which they’re taken out of their comfort zone.

“It’s a totally different experience, that’s for sure,” said Tour president Bill Calfee.

This week’s Colombia Championship is the second stop on the 2013 itinerary, which features four Latin American venues in the first five events. Kevin Foley won last Sunday in Panama; the trek continues to Chile next week before taking a break.

Then after a stop in Louisiana for the Tour’s first U.S. event, it’s back to the Southern Hemisphere for an April visit to Brazil – host of the 2016 Olympics where golf will return to the competition program.

“It’s great for the Tour,” said Colombia’s Camilo Benedetti, now in his seventh Tour season. “It gets their name over there, and the feedback from players has been great. That’s the thing that impresses me the most.”

Not to say three weeks in unfamiliar surroundings doesn’t come without distresses – shuttle buses, local cuisine, the occasional lost bag and, for many, a language barrier. The sight of a soldier on the golf course, rifle at the ready, can be a little disconcerting at first.

“It’s definitely a different world when you leave the country for golf,” Patrick Sheehan said.

In a way, it’s not much different from what European Tour pros must do on a schedule that takes them to 24 nations over a year, ranging from China to South Africa, Malaysia to Bulgaria.

And by and large, the positive reviews seem to outweigh any negative ones.

“I think the players enjoy it,” Calfee said. “But it’s still business. They’re trying to get in that top 25 [on the money list], so they’re focused on golf. But the tournaments have done a nice job in terms of creating some special events.”

In Panama, where Tour officials in 2004 first ventured into Latin America, tours of the Panama Canal were a popular outing. 

At last year’s inaugural Chile Classic, players could tour that nation’s version of Napa Valley. A journey is in the works this year to take players to the scenic Patagonia region.

Perhaps no event has reaped greater benefit, though, than the Colombia Championship. Its first appearance on the 2010 schedule was met with a meager field, as several of the better players opted to stay home.

“A lot of players didn’t go because of the perception of Colombia – drugs, kidnappings and so on,” Calfee said. “But after that first year, they realized that perception was certainly way different from the reality of the country.”

Sheehan said: “We had a great time. The hotel’s good, the course is fantastic and it was easy to get around. But, yeah, everybody was a little nervous. Now it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to Bogotá.’ ”

Last year, the event drew some high-powered renown when former U.S. president Bill Clinton flew down to join in a pro-am round with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. A Tuesday night soiree is popular among players, featuring Colombian musicians and various other eye-catchers.

There are times, though, when certain conveniences are missed. In Panama, the hotel and golf course are separated by a 30-minute shuttle ride if traffic’s good. The hotel is right next to a casino, but there isn’t much else to do in the evenings.

“One of the things I miss most is driving,” Sheehan said. “When you’re in Omaha and you want to go somewhere, you get in a car and drive. Not being able to drive is difficult.”

The language barrier also can prove to be frustrating. Movies and bookstores – frequent downtime options – are in Spanish. Though hotel staff is bilingual, sometimes golf-course staff isn’t.

“I’d ask for Rosetta Stone as a Christmas present. That’s my first recommendation,” Brigman said.

To save on expenses, many players hire local caddies but may not converse much. In 2007, Sheehan finished second in Panama with a local caddie “and we didn’t say one word at all.”

“I don’t need a lot of input from my caddie, anyway,” Sheehan added. “When you’re playing good, even your regular caddie stays out of the way.”

With PGA TOUR  Latinoamérica also taking hold in the region, the popularity of the Tour’s stops figures to grow. Asked for any advice he’d give first-timers on the trip, Benedetti’s response was quick: “Besides just enjoy?”

“I’d probably just say don’t tense up, be more relaxed and enjoy the trip,” he added. “There are a lot of good things to experience.”

Even the inconveniences, Brigman said, have their benefits. With most players staying at the same hotel and taking the same flights, it helps to battle the isolation that newcomers can face as they join the Tour.

“You get to know guys better than when you travel in the U.S.,” he said “It kind of brings guys together in a way you wouldn’t normally do.”