LAAC provides golf goals for region

BUENOS AIRES -- It isn't every day that you see golf's iconic green jacket outside the gates of Augusta National. In fact, unless it's Bubba Watson showing his off while speeding on a hovercraft or driving his General Lee, you never see it at all.

Watson, the reigning Masters champion, is the only person permitted to bring one of the symbols of his victory off the grounds. And in truth, Bubba has been a bit sheepish about wearing it out in public.

Augusta National members only wear their green jackets at the club, so this week in Argentina marks a significant departure from protocol. And it speaks to the importance of the Latin America Amateur Championship to the powers that be at the Masters, who helped launch the event that began Thursday as a way of growing the game in this part of the world.

Masters and Augusta National chairman Billy Payne was made available for an interview Wednesday and again at a news conference Thursday in which he was sporting his green jacket. So were several other Augusta National members in attendance. For a place steeped in history and tradition, this is no small thing.

"We view it as creating a tradition, as opposed to breaking a tradition," Payne said Thursday during a news conference to kick off the event at Pilar Golf Club outside of Buenos Aires. "I think it appropriate to say that this great symbol of golf is recognized throughout the world, and it inspires kids to become involved with the game.

"It's not only appropriate, but our duty, to use the jacket to help grow the game of golf."

Although he is loath to take credit, it was basically Payne's idea to launch the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in 2009, one that did well enough to lead to an expansion of the concept. The idea was to use the tournament -- and a coveted spot in the Masters -- to promote the game and give players in the region goals and aspirations.

The Asia tournament has been such a huge success, bigger than even Payne could have dreamed. In truth, Payne felt it might take years before a winner of the tournament made the cut in the Masters. So there was Japan's Hideki Matsuyama not only winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur twice, but making the cut at the Masters both times.

Now Matsuyama is among the top players in the world, with a victory at last year's Memorial Tournament and several on the Japan Tour. China's Tianlang Guan became the youngest Masters participant at age 14 in 2013 after winning the 2012 Asia-Pacific event.

The attention it garnered in Asia and in China specifically is exactly what Payne envisioned, the thinking being that others would be inspired to take up the game.

"The kids are what made it a success, but what accelerated it in Asia and what will here, as well, is this is done ultra-first-class," Payne said. "I'm not sure there is another amateur tournament in the world that is done with this level of organization and the commitment of resources and all those things we can do collectively."

Along with the R&A and the USGA, Payne and the Masters saw a reason to expand their grow-the-game initiative to the Latin America region, where the green jacket has been met with awe -- along with the Claret Jug, the U.S. Open Trophy and the replica Augusta clubhouse trophy, all on display at Pilar Golf Club.

There were 109 players who teed off in the opening round Thursday, and they all hail from South or Central America, Mexico or the Caribbean.

"You always need something to shoot at in life," said Julian Jordan, 45, a successful businessman from Barbados who attended the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business -- as well as Harvard -- and is one of three representatives in the field from his country. "Even if you don't hit it, you need to stretch yourself, and this is that kind of tournament.

"I commend the people who are thinking this way. I never could have imagined that I would find myself here. It's a big motivational tool for a whole lot of golfers."

Jordan said he wonders how his golf life might have been impacted had he had such an opportunity as a teenager.

"I didn't have a good way to figure out how to get into the U.S. college game," he said.

Now he envisions his young sons in Barbados getting more interested in golf, having a tournament such as this to gauge their abilities.

And that was exactly what the founders of the tournament envisioned.

"This is an area that is really growing," said Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, which got involved in the Latin America event after seeing the quick success of the Asia-Pacific Amateur. "Argentina has been playing golf for well over a century, but some of these countries are just starting. Think about Brazil. They are hosting the Olympics [where golf will be played in 2016], but it really hasn't been a big golf country in the scheme of things.

"But between the Olympics, the PGA Tour being down here with its new tour [PGA Tour Latin America, a feeder tour to the Web.com Tour] and this event, it will help inspire. It's one thing to be running the Latin America Amateur Championship and hopefully inspiring some of Latin America's best amateurs, but what we find is these championships help recreational golf, too. They get interested in the game."

The idea is to move the event around the region -- next year it will head to Casa De Campo in the Dominican Republic -- and do everything possible to approximate the experience of playing in a top-tier tournament.

From rules officials to the check-in process to food and beverage options to a pristine golf course, the players are being pampered like the pros they see on television each week.

Aside from pimento cheese sandwiches -- a staple of the Masters -- there is very little left out.

"The amenities anywhere else ... they wouldn't compare to here," Jordan said. "How we get treated here is incredible."

"I can't believe how nice everything is," said Venezuela's Jorge Garcia. "We are not used to this."

Putting on such an event is no small financial undertaking. Specific figures are not disclosed, but it is no stretch to say that the costs run significantly past the seven-figure mark.

Each of the players in the field is given airfare, accommodations and food. Even the caddies are provided. With more than half the players coming from U.S. colleges, flights to Buenos Aires add up. A price tag of near $500,000 would seem reasonable just for that aspect of the tournament alone.

Then there are all the other elements that go into running an event. Undoubtedly the Masters, the R&A and the USGA have leaned on their corporate partners such as Rolex, AT&T, Mercedes and others to help defray the costs. But it is a significant commitment nonetheless.

"We have the time, we have the resources, and we believe it to be completely consistent with what our founders believe," Payne said.

More than that, however, is what the tournament symbolizes, the dreams it creates.

And it wasn't lost on Mexico's Jose Narro, who opened the tournament with a 3-under-par 69 and noticed a bit of commotion as he played his final nine holes with a red number next to his name.

"I noticed those who came out to watch," he said. "They were wearing green jackets."