When Angel Cabrera returned home after his dramatic victory in the 2009 Masters Tournament, he asked for a meeting with Mark Lawrie, the executive director of the Argentine Golf Association.
“He asked me, ‘What are you going to do with me?’” said Lawrie. “He said: ‘I’m a two-time major winner. How are we going to capitalize on this?’”
Having captured the U.S. Open in 2007 at Oakmont Country Club, Cabrera’s Masters victory made him the first player from South America to win two majors, and he was keen to use that influence to help boost golf in the region, particularly in his home country.
“He is an ambassador of the Argentine Golf Association,” said Lawrie. “Cabrera is a shy person. He doesn’t make speeches; he just does things, like putting our logo on his bag. There’s a message there – I’m carrying the same logo on my bag that you guys are carrying. I want people to see this.”
Cabrera, 45, is a native of Cordoba, about 430 miles northeast of Buenos Aires, in the geographic center of Argentina. He grew up caddieing at Cordoba Country Club, along with Eduardo Romero, who counts the 2008 U.S. Senior Open among his more than 70 professional wins. Other Argentine caddies turned champions include Jose Coceres and Andres Romero (no relation to Eduardo).
Their road to international success was paved by Argentina’s most renowned player, Roberto De Vicenzo, who caddied at Ranelagh Golf Club in Buenos Aires on the way to a career that included more than 200 victories worldwide, including the 1967 British Open and the inaugural U.S. Senior Open in 1980.
“Roberto represents the pros from the last century, who led to the Cabreras of today,” said Lawrie. “Angel is part of that long tradition of the caddie turning pro, but he recognizes the way golf is moving.”
That movement is symbolized by the Argentine association’s golf academy, which is located on the Pilar Golf property, host of this week’s Latin America Amateur Championship.
“Our golf academy has come to the fore and become meaningful,” said Lawrie. “Angel is involved. He has been there to talk to our junior program, and he’s taken some of these kids under his wing and played with them.”
The academy has already produced two Argentine Open champions: Rafael Echenique (2006) and Emiliano Grillo (2014).
“That makes a statement,” said Lawrie, who will become The R&A’s director for Latin America on Jan. 31. “We are now in a mode where most of the professional players are coming out of the amateur ranks.”
The most well known amateur player to come out of Argentina is probably Jorge Ledesma, who edged De Vicenzo to win the 1963 Argentine Open. Ledesma finished as the low amateur in that championship nine times, won three Argentine Amateurs and competed in the 1963 Masters. He and his brother, Pedro, passed the baton to another pair of brothers, Horatio and Luis Carbonetti, who competed in a combined eight World Amateur Team Championships for Argentina. Luis was the low scorer in that event twice, in 1982 and 1984. Unlike the Ledesma brothers, however, both Carbonettis became professionals.
“When Luis turned pro, it sent a ripple out because he was such a big name in amateur golf,” said Lawrie. “It raised eyebrows, but it got people thinking that if he did it, it can be done. It put it in a different light. If anything, he turned pro a little late.”
The Carbonettis have combined for more than 60 professional victories, including five wins on the European Seniors Tour. In a sense, their move to the professional ranks heralded the coming of talented young amateurs to the Argentine development program, including some players who are in the field for the inaugural Latin America Amateur.
And a two-time major champion is there to encourage them along the way.
“We have an event called the Copa los Andes, or Andes Cup, which is a South American amateur version of the Ryder Cup,” said Lawrie. “There are nine teams, all match play – it’s a nice tradition. We held the last one at Angel Cabrera’s club, and he was there watching every day. Can you imagine standing on the tee with Cabrera watching you?”
Argentina boasts more than 320 golf courses and about 100,000 players, including an avid group of 55,000 who keep a handicap, the highest numbers in South America. And yet, there are concerns about its future, with some 65 to 70 percent of those courses being semi-private.
“Most clubs understand that the nature of golf is beginning to change,” said Lawrie. “People want to play different courses. We need to rethink golf clubs as we see them today, not just in Argentina but worldwide. Clubs are going to have to become flexible, allowing people to play their course for a fee and being intelligent about how they adapt even as they look after their core members.”
Lawrie hears criticism about the lack of public golf here, but he disputes that notion.
“I would say, no, I think you’re wrong,” he said. “I think our model is not a bad one: we don’t have public golf competing against private golf. We have private golf embracing public golf in a way that allows them to generate some income.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.