Miami – Overhead, airplanes on final approach to nearby Miami International Airport pass uncomfortably low over the fairways of the Doral Golf Resort & Spa Miami, as if a towering 9-iron shot could ricochet off their underbellies. The aircraft sport colorful liveries representing airlines from throughout the Americas, from Avianca (Colombia) to TAM (Brazil).
On the ground, many of the best amateur golfers from these countries try to block out the droning engines of 757s and A320s as they concentrate over shots on the resort’s Blue Monster layout during the first round of the Copa de las Americas.
The scene is a fitting symbol of the widespread arrival to American universities of golfers from throughout Latin America, where the game is growing and its elite players are looking for opportunities to develop and test their games while receiving an education.
“If you want to pursue a golf career, the United States is definitely the place for junior golfers,” said Joaquin Lolas of Peru, a junior at Florida State. “Everyone’s dream at home is to play good enough to go to a good school, just like the PGA Tour golfers.”
Indeed, of the 38 competitors in the Copa, 24 play or have played collegiately in the United States. And others, like 17-year-olds Matthew Marquez of Trinidad and Tobago and Lucia Polo of Guatemala, are planning to attend U.S. universities. (Polo has signed a letter of intent with Tennessee.)
While Latin American players long have made an impact on the PGA Tour and at the highest levels of international golf, the hardscrabble paths trod by players like Roberto de Vicenzo, Carlos Franco and 2007 U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera are no longer taken by today’s young golfers.
Rather, their role models are players like Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa, who attended Arizona, and Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela, who played for Texas.
“It’s changing,” said Lolas, 20, who captured American coaches’ attention by winning the Mexican Amateur when he was 16. “The junior players are seeing how good college golf is, how competitive it is. Golf is growing a lot in South America, and it is showing in American college golf.”
Most top college programs have an international flavor. Monifa Sealy, who is representing Trinidad and Tobago at the Copa de las Americas, is one of four foreign players on the University of Central Florida’s women’s team. Other countries represented on the Knights’ roster are Canada, Germany and Chile.
“South America is definitely catching up,” said Emily Marron, Sealy’s coach at Central Florida, in Orlando. “They’re starting to come to college. They realize they need the experience.”
Mexico’s Fabiola Arriaga wasn’t sure whether college golf fit into her plans. But after accepting a golf scholarship to the University of Texas at San Antonio, she is ecstatic about her decision.
“The schools, the level of competition, all of it is better here,” said Arriaga, a junior. “I have improved a lot.”
Players’ improvement and growth extend beyond the golf course. In Guatemala, a country with just 4,500 golfers, the game is growing through a national program designed to attract and develop junior players. In addition to teaching golf, its national coach, Ricardo Falla emphasizes education, recognizing that the game’s popularity can be an asset for the entire country.
“I work with kids to make the game grow,” said Falla. “But they have to study first. Especially for values and what you can teach your kids, golf is amazing.”
Falla is particularly proud of one of his players, Sebastian Barnoya, a freshman at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. At Flagler, Barnoya is adjusting to the better competition and looking forward to new experiences like playing at nearby TPC Sawgrass and following in the footsteps of his idol, Phil Mickelson.
Playing on the PGA Tour or LPGA Tour is the ultimate goal of most of the young players at the Copa, and the male players now have a clearer path, thanks to the nascent PGA Tour Latinoamérica. The tour debuted with 11 tournaments in 2012 and will have 15 events in 2013, with the top five players on the Order of Merit earning places on the Web.com Tour.
The tour has given golf more prominence in the sports scenes of Latin American countries.
“Before, you never heard about golf,” said Guatemala’s Falla. “Now, you see it on TV. And sports radio sometimes gives information about golf. So it’s growing.”
In addition, the tour now gives Latin American players more opportunities after developing their games at American universities. Following his stint at Florida State, Peru’s Lolas had been planning on turning pro and staying in the U.S. Now, he may consider returning home and trying to earn his way to the PGA Tour through the Latin American circuit.
By doing so, he hopes to expose more of the citizens of his country to a game that has taken him to so many new places and allowed him to meet people from around the world. At Florida State, Lolas has teammates from Sweden and the Netherlands, and one of his roommates is a tennis player from New Zealand.
“You can’t get bored of playing golf here,” said Lolas. “There are so many options and the variety is awesome. We get to play all over the country – Olympia Fields, Riviera. And Tallahassee is a great place. When we’re in town, we go to football games.
“I tell the younger kids in South America to go for it and play college golf in America, because it’s a wonderful experience.”
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at email@example.com.