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, 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 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, 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.