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PGA Tour Latinoamérica: The Player Experience

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Last month, PGA Tour Latinoamérica held four Qualifying Tournaments, handing out a total of 20 membership cards. This week, the 2017 season gets underway at the 70 Avianca Colombia Open, one of a multitude of national opens appearing on the tour’s schedule. A number of players from the host country, as well many others with Latin American roots, are in the field. They will be joined in Bogotá by a large contingent of Americans, who altogether constitute a majority of members on the tour.

This comes as no surprise to most, as the golf-crazed United States is a breeding ground for top talent. The Americans are a highly-motivated bunch that dream of teeing it up on the Web.com and PGA tours. For many, the pursuit of that dream leads to Latin America. I got the opportunity to talk with a trio of American players, all of whom have played on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica in recent years, to discuss their experiences.

Bryan Martin at the Arturo Calle Colombian Classic at Pueblo Viejo Country Club in Bogotá, Colombia.

Bryan Martin fires an approach shot at the pin during the Arturo Calle Colombian Classic in Bogotá, Colombia.

Bryan Martin, a Southern Californian who played in college at Loyola Marymount and San Diego State, is entering his fourth season on PGA Tour Latinoamérica. For him, the decision to compete on the tour was quite simple: “It was the first of all the other qualifiers,” he said.

Martin acquired status on his initial go-around in 2014. He’s remained on the tour ever since, in part because he believes that “the familiarity of the courses and environment is to my advantage.” While a fourth-year player can hardly be considered a veteran, his statement rings true; fields are typically filled with a substantial number of players that are seeing the course for the first time.

Weston Payne at the Argentina Classic at the Club Campos de Golf Las Praderas de Lujan in Lujan, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Weston Payne splashes out of a bunker at the Argentina Classic in Buenos Aires.

Weston Payne is also a native of the Golden State. He played various mini tours in California and Arizona before trying his hand on PGA Tour Latinoamérica. Despite his strong play on the mini tours, which included a win and a few other top finishes, he did not earn any exemptions or improved status for the Web.com Tour’s Q-School.

At the end of each season, PGA Tour Latinoamérica awards Web.com Tour cards to the top five money-winners. For Payne, this was “a big draw.” He also relished the opportunity to travel and “see a part of the world that I never had been to before.” The tour’s split-season schedule, with most tournaments played in the spring and fall, was also a deciding factor in his decision to play down South instead on the Mackenzie Tour (PGA Tour Canada). This allowed Payne to play a full schedule in Latin America, but “it also meant that I would be home for the summertime to play a lot of the Web.com Monday [Qualifiers] and State Opens.”

Sam Fidone won the PGA Tour LA's Honduras Open in Tela, Honduras in May.

Sam Fidone won the PGA Tour Latinoamérica’s Honduras Open in May.

Sam Fidone, who hails from the piney woods of East Texas, played his college golf at SMU. He completed his first full season on PGA Tour Latinoamérica in 2016 after having earned conditional status through Q-School. Fidone admits to struggling with his game and lacking confidence early in the 2016 schedule, but that all changed in May. In just his sixth start on tour, he eagled the final hole to win the Honduras Open by a single stroke. The victory provided a huge boost to his career. Pulling off such a dramatic win “was quite validating…it felt life changing,” he said. Certainly, it has provided some stability and peace of mind, as it “got me established on this tour for the rest of 2016 and this upcoming year,” making it “very easy for scheduling.”

For most players based in the States, the biggest challenge they face on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica (aside from the stiff competition, of course) is the exhausting travel. Fidone said that it “can be tough…hopping from country to country each week.” In his first year on tour, Payne said he was “somewhat thrown into the fire…with the red eyes and layovers to get to some faraway places.”

Between tournaments, players often take a Sunday night redeye to the next stop, or will have to spend most of Monday in transit. With practice on Tuesday and the Pro-Am on Wednesday, the guys have limited time to prepare for the opening round. Despite all the time spent on planes and dealing with logistics, Payne notes that “the tour does a great job scheduling tournaments and off weeks so that the players have ample time to plan travel and get some good rest.” At most, he has played four consecutive weeks. However, the schedule typically includes two or three events in a row, followed by an off week.

“each week is a unique test that brings out different styles of play.”

Additionally, at each tour stop, the players must get acclimated to a new location and golf course. Players get to experience a wide range of geographies, climates and course conditions. One week, the tour might be in the rarefied air of Quito, Ecuador, at an elevation around 9000 feet; the next week they might play an ocean-front course in the Dominican Republic. “Each week is a unique test that brings out different styles of play,” Payne said.

While it can be difficult to adjust at first, Fidone believes that “all of those things can make you better.” Similarly, Martin said that “figuring out how to be comfortable [while] being uncomfortable” is critical to success on the tour. He knows that each week “there is going to be something that throws you off.” In order to provide some semblance of consistency, he strives to stick to a routine. One habit that he has developed is “packing food for the trips…because they don’t always have food that you’re used to eating on the course.”

While each week brings a unique set of challenges, the players also get to experience different cultures and compete on some of the best courses in Latin America. Fidone recognized how fortunate he is to “play [in] some incredible places…from the courses we get to play, to the resorts/hotels/towns we get to stay in, are second to none as far as experience goes.” He pointed to a couple of Pete Dye-designed courses as his favorite destinations on the tour’s schedule. The first, La Reunion Golf Resort in Guatemala, is “a golf course on a volcano.”

The Casa de Campo Resort’s “Teeth of the Dog” course in the Dominican Republic, which is ranked as the No. 1 course in the Caribbean (and No. 39 in the world) also sits atop his list. Payne enjoyed his two visits to Colombia last year, as the tour held events in Medellín and Cali. Both cities are situated in beautiful valleys, making for a spectacular backdrop to any golf tournament. “The people were fantastic, very proud of their culture and country, and so nice and welcoming,” he said, a sentiment echoed by other players and tour officials that hail from the States.

“If you truly want to make it to the PGA Tour, you can’t stay in the States and play the mini tours anymore.”

With all of the travel and the grind of life of tour, a strong bond forms between many of the players. In the relatively small world of professional golf, especially on PGA Tour Latinoamérica, everybody knows everybody. “We are all at the same place in our careers,” Payne said, which contributes to a sense of camaraderie. “We also spend so much time with one another off the golf course…and in many ways you feel like you have some great support from other players.”

Martin also appreciates the solidarity, and has developed “friendships with other players from all over the world.” Yet, apart from the companionship, the players remain fiercely competitive on the course as they work towards the ultimate goal of moving to the Web.com and eventually the PGA Tour.

Most American players are drawn to PGA Tour Latinoamérica for the chance to move up to the big name tours. “If you truly want to make it to the PGA Tour, you can’t stay in the States and play the mini tours anymore,” Martin said. While the purses may be smaller, he believes the PGA Tour Latinoamérica is unparalleled in terms of opportunities for growth and advancement. The tour features strong fields that have only gotten deeper in recent years, making the competition even tougher. Tournaments are run by a dedicated and professional staff, which is “made up of some really passionate people who not only do a fantastic job running events, but also become great friends to the players,” according to Payne.

Although they face many challenges along the way, the players on PGA Tour Latinoamérica are also very fortunate. They get to play golf for a living, and in doing so, travel to some of the most unique and breathtaking places in the world. “Seeing different cultures and countries is something that I wanted to do in golf, and fortunately I’ve been able to do that at the beginning of my career,” Martin said.

In a similar vein, Fidone does not take any of it for granted. “We’re lucky to do what we do,” he said. If nothing else, at least the Americans have the chance to pick up a new language. Fidone has “enjoyed learning a little bit of Spanish” during his time in Latin America, a skill that should come in handy upon his return to Texas. But like the other players on PGA Tour Latinoamérica, he hopes that future homecomings include stops at Colonial, TPC San Antonio, and Golf Club of Houston, among others, as a member of the PGA Tour.

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Jeffrey Knox's main interests are junior and college golf, but he also follows the professional tours closely. Jeff graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2014, where he served as the Sports Editor and later as Editor-in-Chief of the campus news magazine. He currently lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he works as an environmental scientist for Providence Engineering.

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  1. 4right

    Feb 18, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    Latin America is beautiful, these players are very fortunate to experience and possibly learn a unique culture. I’m sure they’ll remember it for the rest of their lives. The world we currently live in is so divided, so much hate, I wish people would want to be proud Americans first. We look so weak as a nation to others watching us. God bless the world, and God bless America…

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Monday’s Photos from the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open

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GolfWRX is live this week from the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, California.

Tiger Woods, who has won eight times at Torrey Pines, will make his first start in a full-field PGA Tour event since his spinal fusion surgery. The last we saw of Woods was in the 18-player Hero World Challenge where he finished T9, and showed that he could be healthy for 72 holes.

Jon Rahm, who’s now ranked No. 2 in the Official World Golf Rankings, is the defending champion at the Farmers, and he also won last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge. He’s joined in the field by notables Hideki Matsuyama (No. 5), Justin Rose (No. 6), Rickie Fowler (No. 7), Jason Day (No. 14) and Phil Mickelson.

Enjoy our photos from the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open below!

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Tour Rundown: Rahm gets win No. 2 and goes to world No. 2

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Week two of the 2018 calendar season added events on the PGA Champions and European tours. The PGA caravan left Hawaii for California and found its first playoff of 2018, just as the Champions Tour reached the islands. The Euros teed it up in Dubai, and the Web.Com Tour stayed in the Bahamas for a second week. With an Asian Tour event in Singapore, the globe’s eyes were once again on professional golf. Time for Tour Rundown at warp speed!

Rahm continues to build career with win at CareerBuilder Challenge

For all of the final round, it looked like Jon Rahm would pull away for a 4-stroke victory. His driving was impeccable and his irons were dialed in. His putting stroke looked sound, but some of the birdies simply did not nest. Throughout the four-hole playoff with Andrew Landry, it seemed as if Rahm was destined to lose. Somehow, he persevered and won.

Rahm’s patience pays off with second PGA Tour win 

How many edges of holes were singed with putts and chips by Jon Rahm down the stretch? At least four, not counting the playoff. Fortunately for the Basque, only Andrew Landry made enough of a move to track him down temporarily. Rahm played like the 3rd-ranked player should, and now he’s the world No. 2 player. Perhaps the fact that he couldn’t or didn’t separate himself from his pursuers, yet had enough weaponry to pull out a victory, mattered more than a runaway triumph. Yet golf is a funny game. The only fairway Rahm missed in extra time came on the 4th hole. Despite that errant tee ball and his misses on the first three playoff holes, Rahm was able to drain the only birdie of the playoff and walk away a champion.

See the clubs Jon Rahm used to win

Landry and others made the most of their opportunities

Andrew Landry showed more gumption than anyone anticipated. The 2016 first-round leader of the U.S. Open stayed around even longer this week. A 72nd-hole birdie brought him to 22-under par and a tie with Rahm. The Arkansas alumnus drove the ball straight and far on each of the playoff holes, and never once sniffed a bogey. His irons brought him within birdie range but, like Rahm, he could not find the proper combination of line and speed. In the end, Landry missed last and settled (if such a term might be used) for a runner-up finish.

Fleetwood greets 2018 with title defense at Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Tommy Fleetwood looks for all the world to be a millenial hipster with his free-flowing hair and his strands of beard. In absolute contrast, he is equal parts passion and cold blood. When opportunity beckons, he doesn’t look away. Given the slightest opportunity to defend his 2017 Abu Dhabi title, Fleetwood assented and took charge.

How Fleetwood dispatched Fisher and the rest

Through 9 holes of Sunday’s final round, the tag for Tommy Fleetwood’s title defense percolated as He gave an admirable effort. Nine holes and six birdies later, that tag line had changed to How in the name of all that is known did he defend his title? And yet, there was Fleetwood with the fourth European Tour title of his career and third in the past dozen months. When Fleetwood needed a great drive, he got it. When he didn’t hit a great drive, he came through with a stellar approach. When his approach was off, he drained a long putt. And for good measure, he hit a wonderful pitch at the 18th, nestling the ball 5 feet for birdie, and made that. The end result was a 2-stroke margin of victory over the runner-up, Ross Fisher.

What is it about Ross Fisher?

Ross Fisher is eternally composed. Not like his countryman Colin Montgomerie (more on him later), who wore every disappointment like a Halloween mask. Yet, the two share a certain sad penchant for missing opportunities. Last October, Fisher wasn’t going to catch Tyrell Hatton in St. Andrews, but he was chasing immortality. He had a 25-foot putt for the first 59 at The Old Course…and missed. He had a 4-foot putt for the first 60 at the Old Course…and missed. He broke the course record with his 61, but, you know. Fisher has an 0-5 record in European Tour playoffs. On Sunday, he was victimized by Fleetwood’s marvelous back 9 of 30 strokes, but by his own inability to gather the fruits of opportunity. Case in point: Fisher made a long and testy putt for bogey on the par-5 10th, a hole that many birdied. Rather than use it as a springboard to return to his coach on the birdie train, he floundered with four pars and one bogey over his next five holes.

Kelly wins at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

Jerry Kelly earned the 2017 PGA Tour Champions rookie of the year award, on the strength of consistent play and his first two tour titles. On Day 3 of the 2018 season, he added to his victory total with a 1-stroke win over Colin Montgomerie. A 2-stroke swing on 18 decided the fate of both…here’s how!

How Kelly klaimed the championship

For fans of Hideki Matsuyama and his deceptive reaction to fantastic shots, Mr. Kelly is guilty of the same on well-struck putts. He drops his putter from one hand and slumps his shoulders after mid-range putts. All the while, the ball is tracking toward the hole, and usually drops. Kelly played a fine round on Saturday, with 5 birdies and 1 eagle. It might have been the sole bogey of the round, on No. 16, that ignited his hockey-bred fire. The miscue allowed Colin Montgomerie to take a 1-shot lead into the final 2 holes, but Kelly’s birdie on No. 18 brought him the title. How’s that?

How Monty lost his opportunity

We forget how difficult it is to hold a lead in any event, at any juncture. Colin Montgomerie never figured the recipe out in major championships on the regular tour, but he had it down, for the most part, in regular tour events. On the Champions Tour, he has been quite solid, winning six times as a senior in the U.S. and five times in Europe. In the third round at Hualalai, Monty’s most reliable club betrayed him at the least opportune time. A drive into a fairway bunker at the last hole left him 100 yards to the green. He flew the putting surface with his approach and played an indifferent flop shot to 7 feet for par and a playoff. His effort was off the mark and the title slipped from his grasp.

Sergio’s Singapore Open

Despite this unexpected result, Sergio Garcia opened the 2018 season with a victory in Singapore. We’ll run down what he did right.

Sergio and Singapore on a Sunday

The #SingOpen2018 and @TheSergioGarcia made a perfect match on an extended final day. Wet weather forced a last-day completion of Round 3, and most golfers played more than 20 holes on the final day. Garcia stormed from behind with 66-68 over those final 36 holes to wrest the lead from Danthai Boonma of Thailand. Nine birdies and 1 bogey over that stretch of two rounds finished the task for the Spaniard, who looks to defend his 2017 Masters title in the spring.

See the clubs Sergio used to win

The battle for second ended in a tie

With Garcia separating himself from the peloton, attention turned to Boonma and cast for the runner-up resolution. After three stellar rounds (70-68-65), Boonma stumbled in Round 4 with 73, finishing in a tie for 4th with countryman Jazz Janewattananond. Satoshi Kodaira of Japan and South Africa’s Shaun Norris each birdied the final hole to finish tied for second at 9-under, 5 blows behind the champion.

Hello, World for Sungjae Im at Web.Com Opener

Sungjae Im, all of 19 years of age and pegging it in his first Web.Com event ever, gave us a Hello-World moment with a closing 65 and a 4-shot win over Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz. How did the young Korean pro flu powder his way to the top of the podium? We’re asking ourselves the same question

How Im became I’m The Champ

Im entered the final round of the Great Exuma Classic in a tie with Ortiz, but eyes were on proven winners like Rhein Gibson, Steve Marino and Erik Compton. Sungjae Im went out in Round 4 and played perfect golf. He had 4 birds on his outward half, then seized the trophy by both handles with 3 more chirps on holes 14 to 16. Simply put, there was nothing that Ortiz or any other entrant could do, beyond bow and salute the victor.

How Ortiz and the others took the shock

Carlos Ortiz did what he had to do during Tuesday’s final round. He played a solid round, minus-3 with 5 birds and 2 bogies. He stayed ahead of Gibson and all the others, but would have needed to turn his bogies into birdies to tie Im atop the board. Rhein Gibson began round four like a boss, with birdies on 5 of the first 6 holes. He reached 8-under and looked like the eventual winner. The engine sputtered, and it was 1-birdie-1-bogey-10-pars the rest of the way. Gibson would have needed 10-under on the day to tie for the trophy, but with a few more birdies along the way, would he have frightened Im? Who knows!

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Wednesday’s Photos from the 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

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GolfWRX is live from the 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge at the TPC Stadium Course at PGA West (7,113 yards, par 72) in La Quinta, California.

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The field this week is headlined by Jon Rahm, who’s currently ranked No. 3 in the Official World Golf Rankings after his second-place finish at the 2018 Sentry Tournament of Champions two weeks ago. Joining him in the field are notables John Daly, Brian Harman, last week’s Sony Open champion Patton Kizzire, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and Bubba Watson.

Defending-champion Hudson Swafford notched his first career victory at the 2017 CareerBuilders Challenge, where he won by one stroke over Adam Hadwin. He’ll be back in the field this year to defend his title.

Check out our photos from the 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge below!

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