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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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I believe that something like that could be true.
—STEVE COOK, executive director of the South American tour

For instance, this could be true. It's a story about Pedro Martínez, the Paraguayan golfer, that was told in Argentina in late October on the shuttle bus between the Presidente Hotel and the Rosario Golf Club. "I've heard that Pedro showed up for his first tournament in a T-shirt and jeans," says a North American from behind a seat piled high with golf bags. "He was so poor he had to sleep in a sand trap."

At the course, the story is repeated for Cook, a plump, imperturbable man facing middle age with a laptop computer and a bulging passport. "I can check that," he says, the corners of his mouth turning up. "I believe that something like that could be true."

Five minutes later he returns with Martínez, who after four tournaments leads the South American tour's money list with $33,846.67. "This is going to sound like the circus tour," Cook says with a grin. "Pedro never slept in a bunker, but he says he fished for food and hunted birds with a slingshot. Plucked them and cooked them himself." In halting Spanish, Cook presses Martínez for more details of his remarkable life—his childhood in a rural village, his life as a caddie in Asunción, his improbable tournament career. "He broke Sam Snead's 72-hole record at Sao Paulo Country Club," Cook says. "But one time he missed the cut here in Argentina and had to sell his clubs to get home."

Another for instance. Two players in the backseat of a Volvo speeding down the floodlit channel of the Paseo de la República in Lima, Peru, are comparing what they've heard about the city's rainfall. One says it hasn't rained in Lima since 1948. Another says it rained in 1978, causing roofs to collapse and pigs to float down streets. As the car turns onto a frontage road, the city itself seems to testify: block after block of roofless buildings. Cook, at the wheel, says, "We can ask Humberto about that."

Humberto Berger, a prosperous dentist, is president and one of the founding fathers of the six-year-old South American tour. He answers the rainfall question at dinner, while watching a Chinese chef in red tunic, gold epaulets and a guardsman's hat carve up a Peking duck. "We live on a coastal desert," Berger says. "The year that it rained was 1971. It rained for three or four hours, and the city was devastated. We have no sewers. There was no place for the water to go."

A related for instance. Antonio Bar-cellos, a young golfer from Porto Alegre, Brazil, whose swing is replicated on 5,000 MasterCards in his country, insists that until this year the fairways of Lima's Los Inkas Country Club were flooded every Monday. "The water passed through a poultry plant on its way to the golf course," he says, "so during our practice rounds the course would be covered with feathers. They would drift like snow, and when you hit the ball, feathers would fly."

Is it also true, what I've heard? That in a village called Macondo, all the people caught a virus that robbed them of their memories? That no one could remember what things were called, so village officials had to put labels on everything: Cama for bed, pared for wall, cabra for goat? Is this true?

No, says a voice on the bus. That's from a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, the magic realist. The story of the South American tour is being written by Cook, the comic realist. "Cookie," as most of the players call him, appreciates novelty. His smile proclaims, "What a privilege to witness such lunacy!" Of course, this may be the only posture to assume if you're the brains behind the world's most overlooked and charming golf tour. Launched in 1991, the South American tour began as a five-tournament dash across a continent consumed in political and economic turmoil. Six years later the tour has grown to 10 tournaments, played from October to December, and seems poised to develop into a Latin American tour of 15 or more televised events linking Mexico to Patagonia. "South America is golf's great hidden secret," Cook says.

For now, though, Cook's tour is a menagerie: 90 or so South American pros, some of them unable to read or write; six light-haired Swedes; a Namibian who plays out of St. Louis; a vacationing PGA Tour player; a Belgian who was once a professional clown; a Canadian who signed up, French Foreign Legion-style, when his fiancée gave back the ring; a gaggle of young Americans cramming for Q school; and a Japanese player learning to swear in English.

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