Blue and gold is everywhere. Blue-and-gold cars. Blue-and-gold flags. Blue-and-gold people. I’m barely off the plane in Buenos Aires when my friend Daniel hands me a blue-and-gold shirt. Until this moment, we had spent time together only on my home course in Alabama. Finally, the tables have turned.
There has always been a steady stream of South Americans in the Shoal Creek caddie yard, but Daniel’s cue-ball-shaped bald head makes him easy to remember, and his big smile makes him easy to like. Daniel and I are both 51. He started caddying at age 8 and has the deep reservoir of profanity and storytelling of a man who’s spent his life working in golf around the world. During good years, Daniel loops for the likes of José Cóceres and Miguel Ángel Jiménez. In lean times he caddies in Monday qualifiers, and for me. During our rounds, we usually pass the time talking about great golfers we’ve seen and famous courses we’ve played. Daniel hustles more than any caddie I’ve known. Yardages, ball marks, divots. Not content with simply taking care of his players, Daniel keeps everyone in the group moving and entertained. I find myself trying harder when he’s caddying for me. The man has caddied for Seve Ballesteros. I don’t want to disappoint him.
So it was with this trip. I’d been telling Daniel for several years that I wanted to visit his native Argentina. It’s the kind of claim you can make for only so long; you either get on an airplane or you quit talking about it. Now I’m here, and apparently going to a Boca Juniors soccer game.
Top: photo by Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images; middle: photo by Daniel Snaider/Getty Images; bottom: photo by Kim Steele/Getty Images; right: Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images
For our first night in his homeland, Daniel is taking me to watch his favorite team. It turns out that the blue-and-gold shirt isn’t a gift; it’s mandatory. No blue and gold, no admittance. For their safety, no opposing fans are allowed inside Boca’s stadium. When we walk into La Bombonera (“the Chocolate Box”), I learn why. La Bombonera is a claustrophobic, sweaty wonder of the sports world. When the crowd gets excited, which is often, the place shakes enough that you can see the light towers moving. Maradona played for Boca. Now I’m here, in disguise, because Daniel wants me to understand where he comes from, and because he’s supplied me with the borrowed ID card required to get in. Daniel lives just down the street from the stadium. He bleeds Boca, and he’s proud of showing off this experience. I’m glad he is. I’d just prefer the stadium stop quaking.
I’m the type of golf tragic who enjoys planning the trips nearly as much as taking them. Cracking open my worn Confidential Guide always brings a giddy anticipation for what lies ahead. But for this 12-day adventure through Argentina’s golf scene, almost everything is in my friend’s hands. In Daniel I will trust—which includes handing him the envelope of cash he insisted I bring from America. His instructions called for new $100 bills. I learn why in the six hours between when I land and when we attend the game. While I showered and took a nap, Daniel used the time to transform himself into a modern Marriner Eccles, departing with my 20 virgin Ben Franklins and reappearing an hour later with a bag of 400,000 Argentine pesos and two Boca Junior jerseys. As one does.
The street-level exchange of U.S. greenbacks for Argentina’s national currency is illegal and commonplace. And, as I would come to see firsthand, for the country’s aspiring pro golfers and caddies, it’s both limiting and life-altering. One U.S. dollar could officially be exchanged for eight Argentine pesos at the end of 2014. By 2018, that same dollar cost 20 pesos to buy. When I arrive, the official exchange is set at 115. But on the street, a 200- or sometimes 220-to-1 exchange rate is normal for crisp $100 bills that pass inspection for authenticity.
Morning came early for our three-hour flight down to Patagonia. The famous mountain range looks a lot like the brand’s T-shirts, but in a much wider range of color. We were starting our golf here at the invitation of Marcus Clutterbuck. A friend who introduced us described Marcus as a “real” golfer, and he proved it with the carefully constructed notes he sent ahead of the trip. He was eager for us to see El Desafío, the resort he’s building. He’s rightfully proud of the nine holes already completed. But I was curious about why so much of the resort was still a work in progress years after breaking ground. It was time for my second lesson on Argentine politics and fiscal policy. Marcus explained the challenges an entrepreneur faces in Argentina: the near-total ban on imports; high tariffs and taxes on the items that are permitted in; maddening shipping and inspection delays. He has done enough big deals in other parts of the world to understand how untenable the current business environment is in Argentina. But he’s also been at this one long enough to know he’s in it for the long haul. The man just wants to finish his golf course. It’s a story we’ll hear variations on throughout our trip.
The next morning, we go across the street to play Chapelco Golf & Resort. The design from Jack Nicklaus and his son turns out to be in solid shape—great news, considering we’re told the superintendent lives 500 miles away. But the main attraction on Day Two is the shotmaking of our playing companion. Marcus has arranged for us to play Chapelco with María Cabanillas. I’d heard from multiple people that she just might be the next star of Argentine golf, and her game is every bit as impressive as the results I found on the World Amateur Golf Ranking. Playing in Patagonia’s famous winds has instilled in this 17-year-old a swing tempo and ability to shape shots that would leave AJGA parents in the States drooling. María gives a bashful grin when I ask her about the seven wins in her last 10 tournaments. Her father, Mariano, saves his biggest smile for describing María’s progress in English classes and her scholarship to play at the University of Arizona. It’s not until I’ve returned to Buenos Aires the following day that I realize there was no talk of spin rates, swing speeds, smash factors or any other en vogue numbers that I would have forgotten anyway. The low draw María played back into the wind off of the fourth tee is what I’ll remember.
That María is the latest talent to come from Argentina is a testament to the fierce passion in this country’s relatively small golf ecosystem. The Asociación Argentina de Golf (AAG) has 56,000 registered players, and it estimates that the number of golfers in the country is double that. Argentina has just over 300 golf courses—more than the other countries of South America combined. But those player numbers are small compared to global metrics. Argentina wouldn’t rank among the top 30 golf countries on the planet; it falls alongside the Czech Republic, which isn’t even one of the 20 largest in Europe. But my experience at La Bombonera is instructive: People here care about their sports on a deep, visceral level, and they’re proud of what they’ve earned. Dr. Alister MacKenzie’s famed Jockey Club is in Buenos Aires. Henry Cotton spent time as a teaching pro in Mar del Plata. The country keeps producing a steady stream of world-class players, from major champions Roberto De Vicenzo and Ángel Cabrera to touring pros like Cóceres, Eduardo Romero, Andrés Romero, Vicente Fernández and Emiliano Grillo. María Fassi, the runner-up at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, whose father runs the Talleres soccer team in Córdoba, is one of the LPGA’s bright young stars. And my host and the waves of his fellow Argentine caddies have been a constant presence on pro tours around the globe for decades.
Daniel is in a good mood when we return to Buenos Aires on Day Four. Boca won big the previous night, and today we’re playing the oldest golf course in the country. Founded in 1902, today it’s known as San Andrés Golf Club. In Scotland, this St. Andrews would be described as a proper club. Its small but elegant clubhouse—all original, including the showers—sits maybe 50 yards from its own eponymous train stop. The golf course, designed by Mungo Park Jr. (son of Willie Park Sr. and brother of Willie Park Jr.), matches the clubhouse: short, tight and well-tended. Despite ferocious Bermuda rough and small greens that don’t like to forgive when you miss, our host birdies all five of the par 5s. I do not. It is an outstanding warmup for our Jockey Club tee time the following day.
That night, I join Daniel and his family for dinner. We sit at a nice restaurant in a neighborhood that looks even nicer, with glass high-rises and elegant brownstones lining the streets. Like most everywhere I’ve been so far, the effects of the financial crisis aren’t readily apparent. People seem happy. Except, I keep finding out, this is largely untrue for the unfortunate folks who need something not made in Argentina. It seems to be a cycle without a solution. Most that have been broached would take years and be immediately painful to the population—which amounts to political suicide for the country’s leaders. The $4 ribeye at dinner is incredible. We don’t talk much about it directly, but I know I’m benefitting from a situation that may end with the complete failure of the Argentine peso. Instead, we share stories about our kids—Daniel’s precocious son is a little younger than my two teenagers—while finishing off the bottle of malbec.
On Day Six, I’m surprised to learn that the Jockey Club, along with every other club in Buenos Aires, no longer employs caddies. Our hosts explain that the caddies were sacked about a decade ago in the face of rising claims from a dispute over employee versus independent-contractor status. That situation is disappointing, but the Jockey Club is not. There may be a few worn spots around the edges, but the MacKenzie is still all there. The championship Red Course is bordered by the club’s famous polo fields. The Blue Course, full of surprisingly fun holes as well, is adjacent to a full horse track and grandstands. Less appealing were the one-seat scooters used on both golf courses by some members. Nobody thinks the caddies will ever be allowed to return—a loss both for them and for the members. Only the politicians and lawyers win. Some things are universal.
The following day, we make the short trip up to Córdoba and ground zero for Argentine golf. Daniel stays behind to spend the weekend with his family. I’m treated to a stay at El Potrerillo de Larreta. Built by Ignacio Zuberbuhler and his two sons on what Tom Doak calls “almost the perfect piece of land for golf,” El Potrerillo is also an ideal spot to recharge at the halfway point of the trip. The roasted goat is good. The golf is even better. Then it’s on to Córdoba Golf Club, where we’re greeted in the clubhouse by a government decree naming Córdoba the capital of Argentine golf. The city has produced the largest share of great Argentine players, including Cabrera and Eduardo Romero. Caddies still ply their trade here, and mine tells me he’s known most of Córdoba’s greats since they were children.
Tom Doak loves El Potrerillo (left), a challenger to the supremacy of the Jockey Club (right).
With the unpredictability of Argentina’s economy, the future for caddies like Córdoba’s did not feel promising to me. Time moves on. Preferences change. History will have to judge the depth of that kind of loss. In the meantime, that troubled balance sheet presents an opportunity for aspiring young pros like María and veteran caddies like Daniel. Or at least for those who are willing to travel and have access to a visa. A caddie carrying two bags or a pro giving lessons can earn more in one day at a top club in Florida or Spain than they would be paid in pesos for a month of the same work back home.
My Twitter friend Katie Vannucci is an immigration attorney who is well versed in the obstacles foreign professional athletes face in obtaining a visa to work in the United States. In our correspondence, she has explained the current reality for migrant workers traveling on various types of visas. Mistakes and delays aren’t uncommon, even when an athlete has already been signed by a U.S. sports franchise. For professional golfers and caddies operating as seasonal independent contractors, the situation is more complicated. Overstaying or misusing a visa will cause future applications to be denied. Vannucci told me that immigration agents have stepped up the frequency and methods used to detect misuse in recent years, and each action by enforcement officials causes a reaction by those who have made the decision to work around the rules. It’s a game of cat and mouse with a healthy dose of arbitration mixed in. But the consequences are real: Making it into the country doesn’t end the risks for those who choose to work without a proper visa.
Expat caddies can only take jobs that pay in cash, and employers and landlords are known to take advantage of suspected visa dodgers. Those toiling in the shadows are also prime targets for local criminals. Vannucci told me that enforcement agents will often search the phones of those suspected of misusing a tourist visa. As a result, phones are often switched out and contacts lost or deleted. Disappearing from the grid helps avoid detection, but it also comes with the cost of not having legal identification, access to medical care or the ability to use many forms of transportation.
For foreign golfers playing at U.S. colleges, graduation day usually starts the clock in a race against time and the odds. They can’t enter professional events without an appropriate visa. But they often can’t get approved for a visa without the proof of employment that a tour card provides. Options are even more limited for female players. With so few women’s professional events in South America, there just aren’t many ways to build up status and world ranking points. Without status, there’s no approval to work as a tour pro. So, some make the choice to remain in the States after their student visas expire.
I met a young woman in this situation last fall. I promised to keep her identity private because she was in the U.S. illegally. “Alexa” was assigned as my caddie at a U.S. resort. Her name sounded familiar, and within a few holes of conversation I remembered that she’d won a major junior tournament, which led to a spot at a strong college-golf program. She’d done well in her four years, but a subpar week at Q-School left her with no status for the upcoming year. Alexa was caddying for me because a college teammate was letting her borrow a spare bed that week. She asked if I knew anything about a few Florida clubs she’d heard might be willing to take on a young female caddie. The $100 I was going to pay her at the end of the round, along with the money on her loop the following day, was going toward the gas to get her there. She had another friend who thought there was a spot in one of the many caddie condos that pop up in the winter near clubs in Florida—apartments that are often shared four to a room, rent payable to the organizer weekly or even daily. Alexa didn’t know what she was going to do about a place to practice. That would have to wait until she’d firmed up a job and place to stay. It didn’t seem like a great plan to me, but I didn’t say anything. She grew up in an Argentine village that has 500 people and zero golf courses. Her talent and effort had pulled her to within one good week of achieving her dream. The last time I saw her was in the parking lot at the end of that day. I hope her time comes soon.
María Cabanillas just may be the future of Argentine women’s golf
My time in Córdoba ends with breakfast inside its busy clubhouse with Martina Gavier, who runs the AAG’s youth development program there. She gives me a preview of the next wave of Argentine golfers and a rundown of how she’s trying to find opportunities for the four or five who are ready to play for American colleges. Gavier would know: She played for Wright State and then a couple years on the Symetra Tour before returning home. When I ask about the challenges of her job, Martina mentions the scarcity of technology. Today’s college coaches want data. That’s hard to provide in a country with only a handful of TrackMans. Like a balky putter, there are no easy fixes to what ails Argentine golf.
Thus far, this trip has been full of places I wanted to see. But our final adventure is one Daniel put on the list. Knowing next to nothing about Mar del Plata, I’m suspicious of the five-hour drive south. But every caddie I’ve spoken to during the trip has said it’s worth the effort. When in doubt, you trust the man on your bag.
The moment we pull into the brick-paved driveway and climb out of Daniel’s white VW Suran, I know he’s right. The clubhouse looks like Royal Liverpool’s, only it’s somehow even nicer inside. The view that greets us when we step onto the back terrace is one I will never forget: Someone had built a Prestwick in the middle of South America and kept it a secret for 100 years. With fairways firm enough to dribble a basketball, Mar del Plata plays even shorter than its 6,100 yards. Deep, riveted bunkers guard small, severe greens. The course has almost no rough, but enough bumps and breezes to demand good shotmaking. There’s no water or searching for golf balls. It’s the very best kind of golf.
On my last morning in Argentina, I meet Mario Montenegro, Mar del Plata’s longtime caddiemaster. His son, Jesús, caddied at Shoal Creek while playing college golf and recently won his first event on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica. His future travel plans are secure. Daniel translates so Mario and I can talk and laugh about the other caddies and young pros we know in common. I’m looking forward to teasing some of them about the photos Mario shows me from their skinnier days. Finally, it hits me that my 22-hour journey home is fast approaching.
On the drive back to Buenos Aires, we make an unplanned stop at a roadside barbecue that looks too good to pass up. Daniel promises we have plenty of time to make my flight, so I enjoy a farewell ribeye without a glance at my watch. I’m still buzzing over Mar del Plata; it’s exactly why I’ll continue to travel around the world to see new golf courses. As I make the turn to the back nine of my golfing career, I take increasing pleasure from discovering great courses that aren’t on any lists of Top This or That. I think of people like Mariano Cabanillas and Marcus Clutterbuck and Martina Gavier. I wish them success as they try to advance the next generation of Argentine golf, and hope they can find ways to protect the unique character of this proud golfing nation. Daniel says it’s time to go. As we get closer to the airport, he points out Boca’s training facility. It’s hard to miss—blue and gold everywhere.
Looking for more from Michael? We interviewed him about his Argentina trip, and a fascinating life in golf, on our members-only podcast. Listen here.