Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Hispanic Influence; Gamez among Those Blossoming on Tour

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Hispanic Influence; Gamez among Those Blossoming on Tour

Article excerpt

Byline: Garry Smits, Times-Union sports writer

MIAMI -- In the past, the PGA Tour's international flavor came largely from the British Isles and Australia.

Now, Hispanic players have formed one of the largest demographic groups on Tour. From Mexico to Argentina, they're winning tournaments and inspiring Hispanic fans who also form the largest minority group to play golf in the U.S.

"Years ago, it was only Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez," said Robert Gamez, American-born and of Mexican descent who has won twice on the PGA Tour. "Now, there are so many more Hispanic players on Tour to be role models for kids in Latin America, and kids in the U.S. who are of a Hispanic background."

At one point, Gamez appeared to be the new Trevino, winning both of his tournaments at the age of 21 in 1990, including an eagle-two on the 72nd hole to capture the Bay Hill Invitational. Gamez lost his Tour card by 1999, but has experienced a career resurgence -- right about the same time as South American players such as Carlos Franco, Jose Coceres, Angel Cabrera and Eduardo Romero, plus Esteban Toledo of Mexico have blossomed as professionals.

That's in addition to Spanish stars Sergio Garcia and Jose Maria Olazabal, who followed Seve Ballesteros and have combined for 37 PGA Tour and international victories. Although they are from continental Europe, Garcia and Olazabal have strong followings in the U.S., especially among Hispanic fans.

Ford Championship at Doral tournament director Tom Neville realized how strong last year, when Garcia played in the Florida Swing's opening event. Neville was gazing out onto the Blue Monster Course from the highest point of the multi-story resort, and compared galleries following Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Garcia, all on different parts of the course.

"There are just as many people following Sergio as Tiger and Ernie," Neville said. "And it's safe to say that most of the gallery following Sergio were Hispanic."

This year, the galleries at Doral have multiple choices. There are Franco, from Paraguay, and Coceres, from Argentina, who have combined for four PGA Tour victories since 1999.

There's also Cabrera, the long-hitter from Argentina, and Toledo, the feisty ex-boxer from Mexico who Gamez said will win on Tour, "sooner than later."

Doral seems to be the perfect fit of the Hispanic influence among PGA Tour players and the increasing popularity of the sport among Hispanic fans. According to the National Golf Foundation, 1.4 million people of Hispanic or Latino background in the U.S. play golf, nearly 60 percent of the total number of the country's 2.4 minority golf participants.

Doral galleries naturally include large numbers of Hispanic fans, since the course is located in an area with a large Hispanic population. But Neville said the increase in interest can't be passed off as mere demographics of the surrounding community. …

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