LATIN AMERICA AMATEUR
Player From Haiti Exemplifies Spirit of LAAC January 17, 2015 | Buenos Aires, Argentina By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Haiti's Gerald Mathias warmed the hearts of LAAC competitors. (LAAC)

Sometimes a championship experience – even one as prestigious as the inaugural Latin America Amateur – cannot be measured in strokes taken, or order of finish.

Gerald Mathias, of Haiti, is 57 years old and the lone competitor in the LAAC field from his country. He missed the 36-hole cut, but the fact that he was able to play in the competition is easily the most remarkable story of the week.

Until this week, Mathias had never been away from Haiti, never flown on a plane – indeed, he had never played a par-5 hole in his life.

“Gerald is the best player on the island; he won our competition to play in the Caribbean Amateur in April,” said D.J. Neree, the commissioner of the fledgling Haitian Golf Federation, which applied for recognition by the International Golf Federation (IGF) shortly after that initial six-player competition. The recognition didn’t come in time for Mathias to play the Caribbean event – the federation earned IGF status on Dec. 16, less than a month before this week’s LAAC.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” said Neree, 40. “Being a member of the IGF allowed us to nominate one player to be part of this event. We were reaching for the sky with the Caribbean Amateur, and we ended up hitting the stars.”

Mathias is the caddie master at the lone course in Haiti, the Petionville Club. But Petionville is not your typical country club – its nine-hole course opened in 1938 as a diversion for expatriates and diplomats from the nearby U.S. Embassy, in the northwest suburbs of Port-au-Prince. On Jan. 12, 2010, the club’s primary purpose became moot when a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the country, leaving more than 100,000 dead and displacing some 3 million people.

The Petionville Club was turned into a relocation camp for nearly 60,000 people left homeless by the quake, thanks in large part to efforts of the J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO), which is spearheaded by actor Sean Penn. The aid group managed the camp through the end of 2013, when the last of the displaced Haitians were relocated, and the golf course reopened with only four holes because of the damage caused by its interim use.

Mathias, who is also a member of the clubhouse staff, lives on the course with his wife, Loze, and son, Bradley, 8, in a four-room building that formerly served as the J/P HRO office.

“The Petionville Club is the only place you can play golf in Haiti,” said Neree, a native of Cap-Haitien, Haiti, who emigrated to the United States, where he studied at Brown and Harvard universities, playing football for Brown. He returned to Haiti following the earthquake to help facilitate private-sector loans for the Inter-American Development Bank.

“I joined the Petionville Club and came across so many caddies like Gerald who had never had the opportunity to play courses outside of Haiti,” said Neree. “People thought no one in Haiti played golf. I figured the best way to develop the sport was to create this federation so we could become part of wider world of golf.”

Mathias, who said he has played golf for 25 years and been the caddie master for 18 years, was exposed to that wider world this week.

“Thank God for it being me,” he said through an interpreter, pausing to blow kisses in appreciation. “It has been wonderful. I have never played on such pristine greens.”

Mathias suffered from a bit of jet lag and pressure in his ears on the first flight of his life. Delays kept him from arriving in Buenos Aires until Thursday morning, the first day of the competition. His acclimation to championship golf that afternoon was no more jarring than many other aspects of his trip to Argentina. 

“He got out of the hotel elevator on the third day and told me, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’ve never gone up and down in those types of machines before,’” said Neree.

Mathias played his Thursday and Friday rounds with Kevin O’Connell, of the U.S. Virgin Islands, who tried to settle down his fellow competitor.

“On the second hole, Kevin came up to me and said, please tell him to relax,” said Neree. “He said if Gerald had any questions, he could rely on him. As Kevin put it, ‘He’s a cool guy, I’m a cool guy, let’s get on with it.’ They bonded.”

As could be expected, Mathias struggled on the Pilar Golf layout, failing to break 100 in either of his rounds. But that didn’t dampen the experience for either him or Neree – it only encouraged them.

“I felt very welcomed,” said Mathias of the players and the officials at Pilar Golf. O'Connell promised to help him obtain newer equipment.

“Given the number of years he has invested in the sport, he deserved all the help and guidance that was necessary in order to get him here,” said Neree. “We all pray for miracles and we all fight not to come in last, but what was important from my perspective was for him to finish the tournament, to establish a benchmark. We’re 79 over par [Mathias shot 108-115], and we go from there.”

Will Mathias represent his country again? A bit overwhelmed by his initial experience, he wasn’t prepared to answer that. However, Neree is looking into the possibility of creating a partnership with the golf association from the Dominican Republic, which boasts more than 30 courses and shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

"It would be shortsighted not to reach out to them for assistance," said Neree.

And Mathias has introduced his 8-year-old son to the game, a possible future LAAC competitor from Haiti.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.