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A World Apart
John Garrity
December 09, 1996
On the South American tour, pros quickly learn that only the game is the same
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December 09, 1996

A World Apart

On the South American tour, pros quickly learn that only the game is the same

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Any resemblance to the PGA Tour is. coincidental. On a Monday morning in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Cook lets a man in a business suit into room 422 of the Oro Verde Hotel. The man hands Cook a paper bag containing $101,000 in U.S. currency, and while Cook counts the cash, Rafael Miranda Roca, the president of Guayaquil Country Club, lights up a cigar. "This kind of money is meant for smoke-filled rooms," Cook says approvingly.

Thirty minutes later players begin rapping at Cook's door. When Cook says, "Next victim," Corina Bronger, the tour's administrative assistant, lets one in. The biggest bundle of cash, $18,000, is set aside for Argentina's Gustavo Rojas because the winner of the Ecuadorian Open is already winging toward Peru, the tour's next stop. The second-biggest bundle, $11,140, is picked up by Jeff (Game Show) Schmid, a tall, thin Minnesotan with wispy red chin whiskers and a perpetual air of wariness. Schmid counts his money twice before signing for it. "We would rather not pay the players in cash," Cook says, "but banking in South America presents some difficulties."

Some players don't have bank accounts, for one. For another, local currencies are not fairly or readily exchanged between countries. That leaves the U.S. dollar as the only dependable medium and the money belt as the most trustworthy depository. Jeff Peck, a young pro from Carrollton, Texas, won a few thousand dollars his first season and walked around hugging his wealth as obsessively as Midas. "It was all the money I had in the world," he says. "I put it in this toy room safe, but I couldn't sleep at night, and when I got to the golf course I couldn't keep my mind on my game." To save his sanity, Peck finally wired his money home—at a cost of $200.

Ecuador is not a golfing country, but Guayaquil Country Club is 53 years old. It was home to the country's first course, a nine-holer. As recently as 1958 the greens were sand, and that year, for the first time, Ecuador sent its best golfers to the South American Amateur Championship, played entirely on grass. "They were good players," says Miranda, "but they three-putted or four-putted every green."

Grass greens were subsequently installed, but the club continued for many years with stone-walled tees topped with dirt and asphalt. "You teed off with cutoff tees because you couldn't sink a long tee into the asphalt," Miranda says. An engineer educated in the U.S., Miranda now presides over a club with a modern stone clubhouse, two swimming pools, a tennis club and an equestrian center. The lush 18-hole golf course may be the least of the club's attractions. The whole of Ecuador has four 18-hole courses and perhaps a thousand players, counting caddies. "The waiters play golf on Mondays," Miranda says. "They count!"

Only at the IMG-cosponsored Argentina Open, the continent's oldest and most prestigious tournament, are tickets sold to the general public. The spectators at other tour events are club members, sponsors and invited guests who wander the fairways unrestrained, if they wander at all. There are no leader boards, no concession stands and no portable toilets.

There are mosquitoes. "We'll need to keep moving," Cook says, spraying his arms and hands with insect repellent during the final round of the Ecuadorian Open. "In the low areas the insects tend to swarm." Steering his golf cart around hibiscus hedges, up and down hills, over crunchy pepper pods, Cook keeps an eye out for rules infractions and slow play. "A lot of the South American players slow down on Sundays," he says. "It's sort of a stare-down, macho thing."

Cook's slow-play warnings are gentle—and companionable: "I need to ask you to play faster," he says. Some golfers react defensively; others simply nod. One player, a gringo, high-steps down the fairway like a drum major, waving at Cook. "You see the fear I inspire," Cook says dryly.

Later in the day Schmid visits the tournament office to mildly protest the slow-play warning that he and his partners in the last group received at the turn. "They never time the last group at the Masters," Schmid argues. "Fred Couples can be four holes behind and they don't time him." To this Cook cocks his head and smiles blissfully, as if to say, Did one of my players just compare this operation with the Masters?

Schmid, one discovers, is the canary in the coal mine, the squeaky wheel, the five-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter in the suggestion box. He's a natural quizmaster—hence his nickname. "I'd see him in the morning and he'd start with the questions," Cook says. "They'd spill out so fast I couldn't answer them. He totally baffled me."

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