South America becoming fertile ground for golf |

South America becoming fertile ground for golf

AP Golf Writer

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Henrique Lavie was more involved than usual in meetings during The Players Championship. He is commissioner of Tour de las Americas, and while that is among golf’s smallest circuits, it is becoming more important than ever.

The Olympics in Brazil are six years away, and golf has only one shot to make a good impression before another vote to determine whether the sport makes it beyond the 2020 games.

More than finding (or building) the right golf course is making sure golf is embraced.

Golf in South America has been growing slowly but steadily over the last 10 years, producing such stars as two-time major champion Angel Cabrera of Argentina and Camilo Villegas of Colombia.

“This process needs to be speeded up a little bit because of the Olympics and because of the globalization in golf. And we can say with the crisis of the economy, it makes new markets more attractive,” Lavie said.

“The PGA Tour has been very successful in what they have done in Latin America,” he said, mentioning tournaments in Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and a recent Nationwide Tour stop in Colombia. “This is a great opportunity to look closely at that market. And they are talking to the Tour de las Americans on how to do it. I think there’s real interest, and we’re excited about it.”

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in March that golf needs to get to South America to develop interest, whether that’s the Presidents Cup (which has an opening in 2015) or a regular tournament.

One proposal under consideration is to alternate a World Golf Championship between the United States and South America during the next television contract that begins in 2013. Lavie said he spoke to U.S. tour officials two years ago about Brazil, which has a burgeoning economy and will host the Olympics in 2016.

“Brazil will be a strong leader in the near future, and taking a world championship there is great preparation for the Olympics and a great measure to test the market in terms of the ability to get a big sponsor,” said Lavie, who is based in Venezuela.

As for the golf course, Lavie said nearly a dozen architects have shown an interest in building the course to be used for the Olympics. His biggest concern is that the Olympic course is open to the public.

“I think that’s probably mandatory,” Lavie said. “A public golf course can make a big difference. I mentioned at the Presidents Cup the beauty of Harding Park being public, because such an event going to a public place means a lot to the game.”

OPEN AND SHUT: The U.S. Open will know how many spots are available through 36-hole qualifying after this week, when the last of the exemptions are handed out through the world ranking and money lists on the PGA Tour and European tour.

The top 50 in the next world ranking are exempt for the U.S. Open and British Open. The U.S. Open also will take the top 10 on the PGA Tour money list and the top five from the European tour money list after this week.

Vijay Singh is not the only player needing a good week, just the most surprising.

He has played 63 consecutive majors, the longest active streak, and began the year at No. 26 in the world. The Fijian has slipped to No. 51. Singh likely will need to finish among the top three to secure his spot in the top 50, although he could finish lower and get back in depending on what players do around him.

Other players needing a good week to avoid Open qualifying include Graeme McDowell, Rickie Fowler, Soren Hansen, J.B. Holmes, Justin Rose and Rory Sabbatini, who is defending his title at the Byron Nelson.

CASPER HONOR: Billy Casper has been selected to receive the Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor given by the PGA of America. He will be presented the award Aug. 11 during the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

Casper, often overlooked in the same era as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, won 51 times on the PGA Tour and remains the all-time points leader in U.S. Ryder Cup history. He won three majors and captured the Vardon Trophy five times.

“You never expect anything like this, and when you take a look at those who have been named before me on this award, it is truly humbling,” Casper said.

MALAYSIA TOURNAMENT: When it comes to the Asia Pacific Classic, perhaps the PGA Tour should change its slogan from “These Guys Are Good” to “these guys have got it good.”

The new tournament in Malaysia, to be played Oct. 28-31 at The Mines Resort and Golf Club, is a 40-man field that includes the top 25 players available from the FedEx Cup standings, the top 10 players from the Asian Tour money list, and five sponsor exemptions.

While the money is unofficial, it’s a $6 million purse with $1 million for the winner.

Tour officials have said they already have received interest from players, and who can blame them? Not only does last place pay $50,000, the tournament organizers are offering two first-class plane tickets for each player, a business class ticket for the caddie, and lodging, ground transportation and meals are complimentary.

The tournament is held the week after Las Vegas and a week before the HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

HARRINGTON’S KNEE: Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington is playing Europe’s flagship even this week at Wentworth, then taking off to have surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee.

That means Harrington will miss the Wales Open – played on the Ryder Cup course – although he believes he will be recovered in time to play the St. Jude Classic and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

He said he injured his knee playing soccer during Christmas. The only effect it has had on his golf has been crouching to read putts.

“But it affects my training, and obviously I don’t want it to get worse,” he said.

DIVOTS: Jack Nicklaus, who left IMG at the start of the year, has signed with CAA Sports as his new management company. … The “Caddy for a Cure” program has made its way to the LPGA Tour, offering people a chance to caddie during a practice round. It will start with the LPGA Championship the week of June 21-27, with an opportunity to caddie for Natalie Gulbis. … Annika Sorenstam is coming out of retirement as a vice captain for Europe in the Solheim Cup next year. Joanne Morley also has been selected as a vice captain under Alison Nicholas. … Players in their 20s have won eight times on the PGA Tour this year, already more than all of 2009.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Jerry Rice almost hit as many shots (174) in two rounds on the Nationwide Tour as he caught touchdown passes (176) in his 16 years with the San Francisco 49ers.

FINAL WORD: “I’m playing six majors in a row.” – Tom Watson, on his plans for the summer.