SI Vault
 
Land of Opportunity
Jaime Diaz
September 22, 1997
Spaniards tend to work alone. The ancient land's great figures have been individualists, be they artists, conquistadors, architects, matadors, explorers or writers. It's no accident that the Spanish aren't known for their assembly-line products. The land itself is mountainous, too naturally divided to foster a strong national identity. All of which helps explain why Spain's national soccer team is often a disappointment while the country's golfers have been surprisingly successful. When given the opportunity to play—only 115,000 Spaniards are golfers, or less than 1% of the country's population of 39 million—the Spanish have demonstrated both the passion and the temperament to excel in the game.
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September 22, 1997

Land Of Opportunity

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Spaniards tend to work alone. The ancient land's great figures have been individualists, be they artists, conquistadors, architects, matadors, explorers or writers. It's no accident that the Spanish aren't known for their assembly-line products. The land itself is mountainous, too naturally divided to foster a strong national identity. All of which helps explain why Spain's national soccer team is often a disappointment while the country's golfers have been surprisingly successful. When given the opportunity to play—only 115,000 Spaniards are golfers, or less than 1% of the country's population of 39 million—the Spanish have demonstrated both the passion and the temperament to excel in the game.

Unfortunately, the opportunity is still all too rare. Though poor, Seve Ballesteros had entr�e to the game through his uncle, touring professional Ram�n Sota, and his older, golf-playing brothers in the coastal town of Pedre�a. Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal, a Basque from the northern part of the country, was the son of a greenkeeper near the town of San Sebastian. For most Spaniards, though, golf remains largely a game for rich tourists.

Surprisingly, Valderrama, one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, has been a prime source of opportunity for less-privileged native players. The club's owner, Jaime Ort�z-Pati�o, decided early on to hire the majority of his workforce from the adjoining town of Guadiaro, whose 4,000 residents had developed a golf consciousness because so many had worked as caddies and green-keepers at the original course at Sotogrande. One of them, Juan Zumaquero, was first exposed to the game 30 years ago when he caddied for Ort�z-Pati�o and is now the head pro at Valderrama. Since the club opened in 1985, Guadiaro's connection to the game has become even stronger.

Because there were so many bona fide golfers in the town, the citizenry decided to build its own course. Ort�z-Pati�o provided the seed money, and Robert Trent Jones, who had designed Valderrama, offered his services without a fee. In 1991 the town opened a sporty nine-hole course named La Ca�ada.

Sitting on a bluff less than a mile from Valderrama, La Ca�ada is one of only 12 municipal golf courses in Spain. A family membership costs $650. Players under 21 have it even better. For them, greens fees, practice balls and lessons are free.

As a result, little Guadiaro is turning out some of Spain's most impressive young players. Among the 70 golfers of both sexes in the junior program, the club has two Spanish national age-group champions, Gervasio Cuquejo, 8, and 12-year-old Iv�n S�nchez, plus a slew of teenagers with a handicap of five or less.

On a recent day about a dozen juniors worked on the practice tee after a session with La Ca�ada teaching pro Jos� Quir�s. Almost all had attended the Volvo Masters at Valderrama, and in July several had gone to watch members of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, including Tiger Woods, play a practice round there. "Tiger was incredible," said Jos� Luis S�nchez, a 16-year-old with a three handicap who, along with his father, a contractor, will attend the Ryder Cup. "Ever since I saw him, I've thought about his swing, about how he practices. He's an inspiration to all of us to get better."

Watching the impromptu gathering was a smiling Jos� Ledesma, who runs the club's small bar and restaurant. Ledesma, 41, grew up caddying at Sotogrande and playing the course whenever he was allowed. Although he now rarely plays more than once a week, the athletic Ledesma maintains a three handicap at La Ca�ada. "If this kind of environment had existed when I was a boy, I would have become a professional golfer, I'm sure," Ledesma says. "This gives kids a real chance to become good. I remember, as a boy, Manuel Pi�ero coming to Sotogrande for a tournament after riding a motor scooter all the way from Madrid [a journey of 400 miles] with his clubs slung over his shoulder. When I think of that, I wonder how there are Spanish pros at all."

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