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Golf club sees future in nurturing its caddies

Friday, April 02, 2010
By Scott Michaux
Staff Writer

VILLA ALLENDE, Argentina Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, is world renowned for its caddie yard, which produced Hall of Famers Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. That root source ran dry by 1949 when the club discontinued its caddie program.

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Fans lined up to watch Angel Cabrera's "caddie swing" as he teed off during the second round of the Argentina Open at Nordelta Golf Club in December in Tigre, Argentina.

(Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

The closest any club in the world has come to producing such accomplished talent since is Crdoba Golf Club in Argentina, where both Angel Cabrera and Eduardo Romero learned the game as caddies. With their support and the club's commitment, that wellspring for producing pros from the caddie yard is unlikely to dry up.

"It's important to me, it's important to the club and it's important to the game to have the caddies stay," said Cabrera, who, along with Romero, provided the money to build what is regarded as the finest caddie shack in Argentina, complete with a cantina, showers and locker room for the 50 to 60 caddies who call the club home.

"All the caddies over here, the dream is to be a pro," Romero said. "'If Romero and Cabrera do it, I can do it.' This is very important."

That dream used to be common in the early days of the game. It has become a rarity in established golf nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom, where either electric carts or pull trolleys have made caddies obsolete in most places.

The posh clubs that still have caddie yards view it mostly as a service to the members and not an entry opportunity for the caddies.

Consequently, the avenues to the golf tours are through junior programs, teaching academies and colleges. That model is catching on in places including Argentina, where almost all of the country's greatest pros came of age in the caddie yard.

Caddies exchange money outside the Crdoba Golf Club. The caddies get the run of the course on Mondays, teaching themselves the game using hand-me-down clubs. Those who top the club's rankings are allowed to play more often.

(Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

"It's kind of gotten lost," said Cabrera's older son, Federico Cabrera, who learned the game as a club member and turned professional. "In the old times, most were caddies who became great players. But now you have more amateurs."

Economy and labor laws have forced many of the prominent clubs around Buenos Aires to diminish or get rid of caddie programs in favor of less expensive options such as pull carts.

"It's not good for professional golfers in Latin America because to be a pro you have to be a caddie first," Romero said.

Other regions have clung to the caddie traditions that have produced current Argentine stars Andres Romero (Tucumn) and Jose Coceres (Chaco).

"In Buenos Aires, they are playing more with pull carts. The caddies are kind of disappearing," Cabrera said. "In Crdoba, the caddies still are getting jobs. Here, all caddies play on Mondays, and some of them even on any weekday. In Tucumn, is the same. In Chaco, I suppose the same. In the interior, the caddie is very important. We consider them valuable."

Tales from the caddie yard are legendary, too.

In Crdoba, they still talk of Pelado Castillo, a former caddie who won a long driving contest during the Centro Open after taking off his shoes and crushing a drive with his toes dug into the turf.

Then there is the story of Bicho Cortez, a 36-hole leader in the Centro until a well-meaning member bought him new golf shoes. Cortez shot 81 the next day because his feet ached.

The caddies are self-made players who get the run of the course Mondays with hand-me-down clubs.

Hector Bringas, a member who sometimes watches them play from his bed-and-breakfast across the street, calls it the biggest casino in Crdoba, with players wagering money they can barely afford. They attack the game with a Latin bravado built more on power than finesse.

"Our two great players were not good putters," Bringas said. "Because caddies were more macho. You hit the ball longer and harder. That was something to love. But not the putting. The putting is for anybody. But when they have to hit their driver, it's their honor."

They simply call it the caddie swing.

"I believe it's just natural," Cabrera said of a rhythm he picked up on his own. "They take a club, they make a swing, and they start learning. Everyone. You give a club to any caddie and they make a swing they learn by watching. Everyone learns by watching, especially here in Villa Allende."

It became quickly evident to everyone who watched him that Cabrera's was not just any swing.

"When you see something special, you can see it," Romero said. "I saw Cabrera, and the attitude was very aggressive and we knew this kid was very good."

At Crdoba Golf Club, the commitment to caddies has been there since Romero won his first tournament. The system of caddies playing only Mondays was expanded to three days a week for caddies who topped the club's rankings.

Now, there are 10 to 15 caddies who can play any weekday morning, and the three or four best are supported with funds to travel to tournaments in Buenos Aires.

More caddies from Crdoba are competitive in national tournaments. Pablo Pinto, a Crdoba caddie, finished runner-up in this year's Argentine Open, while several others competed along with Cabrera, Romero and Cabrera's two sons.

The caddies follow the inspiration of Romero (nicknamed Gato) and Cabrera (nicknamed Pato), who are considered heroes and role models to them.

"On Monday, there'll be 15 or 20 caddies on the first tee saying, 'Swing like Gato! Swing like Pato!'" Romero said.

Though their kinship with the caddies has led both Cabrera and Romero to offer financial support for everything from education to medical costs, it's the club that fosters the spirit to maintain the caddie program as a building ground.

"In most of Argentina, people still think I am rich, you are poor; I am member, you are caddie," Romero said. "Not here. That taboo is broken now."

Cabrera said: "The club protects the caddies, helps the caddies, nurtures them."

It is a system that many believe isn't finished delivering stars to the world stage.

"We have a lot of good players," Romero said. "Probably in five or six years we'll have another Cabrera."

Cabrera isn't ruling out that another caddie from Crdoba will join him in competing at Augusta National Golf Club one day.

"It's not impossible, but it's very hard," he said. "It's not something we might see soon. I'm going to do all I can to help them get what they need.

"If they can do that, I just don't know. But I'm going to make sure they have what they need."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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