From the Golf Journal Archives - The Game in Spain Is Gaining, in the Main

Apr 09, 2010

Severiano Ballesteros, a charismatic Spanish hero, is pushing successfully for expansion of the game to the public on the Iberian Peninsula.

By George Eberl

(Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 1986 issue of Golf Journal.)

October 30, and green leaves still clung firmly to trees along Capitan Haja, a major thoroughfare in northwest Madrid. The late-afternoon sun rode just above the high-rise skyline of the city, but the temperature hovered in the low 70s. It was no surprise that mid-autumn attire among pedestrians along Capitan Haja tended toward lightweight dress, save for the blue jeans worn by the young Spanish women. They would also wear them in winter, spring, and summer.

High above this summery October scene, on the fifth floor at No. 9 Capitan Haja, eight staff members of the Real Federacion Española de Golf were oblivious to the passing parade below. Those girls in blue jeans were ignored in favor of such chores as calculating electronically the handicaps of the 30,000 members of the RFEG, or preparing instructive reports for Spanish municipalities whose officials were thinking about transforming some of their land into public golf courses.

This is the dominion of Luis Figueras-Dotti Cabot, the courtly RFEG President, an extraordinarily avid lover of golf. His name should be familiar to followers of the game in the United States; Marta Figueras-Dotti, who won more than $50,000 on the LPGA Tour in 1985, is his younger daughter.

Figueras-Dotti, a former general manager of an oil company, smiled a trifle whimsically as he recalled his childhood introduction to golf: “When I was young I was a weak child, and people said that golf would be a game I could play. Golf brought me so much pleasure that I forced my daughters to play it. Marta began playing when she was about 7 years of age. Ann (Marta’s older sister) could have been very good, too, but she was different, and not that interested. She wanted to be – and is – a businesswoman.”

Figueras-Dotti readily admitted that his family’s wealth enabled him to play golf, and in the subsequent generation made it possible for his daughters. Thus, they came to the game by way of tradition. Another path, however, is also common in Spain – caddieing. Indeed, Spain’s four best players all came from the caddie ranks – Severiano Ballesteros, Manuel Piñero, José María Canizares, and José Rivero.

When one includes José-María Olazabal, the 1984 British Amateur champion, and Mary Navarro, a 13-year-old girl who played so well during the 1984 Women’s World Amateur Team Championship, it is plain that Spain has produced an assortment of gifted players far out of proportion to the number of golfers in that sunny land.

FIGUERAS-DOTTI carries on a quiet but determined crusade to promote the game for a broader segment of the population. He is convinced that the success of a small but intensely competitive group of players may be attributed in large part to qualities in the game that match with conspicuous elements of the Spanish character – pride and individualism. Moreover, he has a powerful ally in his cause in Ballesteros, a charismatic figure in Spain who, in October, 1985, drew the country’s government into the act.

Ballesteros’s popularity has led to an increased televising of golf – unlike the United States, where networks pay for the right to telecast sports events, television is paid for in Spain by those who want their events on the living-room screen – and Seve invariably is interviewed at the tournament’s conclusion. According to Figueras-Dotti and others, Ballesteros uses that opportunity to plead his case for public course golf.

So, in late October, after he won the Spanish Open, Ballesteros made his usual pitch. Spain’s Minister of Sports then announced that 72 million pesetas (roughly $460,000) would be granted for the construction of half-a-dozen golf courses, with the presumption that the municipalities would match the national government’s contribution. The six sites would be divided between Spain’s two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona.

Ballesteros is an interesting phenomenon; he is the best-known Spanish player to most Americans, an attractive performer who has won two Masters (1980, 1983), two British Opens (1979, 1984), several PGA Tour events, finished close to the winner occasionally in our Open (a tie for fourth in 1983, a tie for fifth in 1985), and he has been a dominant figure on the European Tour. He won the Irish Open last year before his victory in the Spanish Open, and he was a member of the European Ryder Cup Team that defeated the United States in 1985, 16½ to 11½, the first Ryder Cup loss for the American Team in 28 years. Three of his countrymen – Piñero, Rivero, and Canizares – also contributed to the victory, Spain, therefore, accounted for one-third of the 12-man team.

If Ballesteros is admired in the United States, he is idolized in Spain. He has what Figueras-Dotti aptly calls “Charisma. Ballesteros has charisma. He is appreciated by one group for the way he plays golf – these are the golfers. But he is liked by many others for the way he is, what you would call his lifestyle. He is intense, competitive, appealing, emotional. In this way, he is like our bullfighters; that is your similarity.”

For example, Figueras-Dotti told of an exhibition by Ballesteros some time ago in the stadium where the excellent Real Madrid soccer team regularly plays. Admission was free, and the stadium was packed with Spaniards, who had come to watch their idol hit golf balls.

Clearly, wood shots were out of the question. The principal action focused on Ballesteros going outside the stadium to hit short irons over the seats to as close to mid-field as possible. The crowd was exhorted to cheer loudest when Ballesteros’s shots landed on or near the center stripe. Figueras-Dotti, who attended, recalled that the din was terrific. That’s charisma, especially when one considers that a sizable majority of those in the stands were not golfers.

If Ballesteros and Figueras-Dotti had their ways, that would be changed.

SPAIN has 82 golf courses, most of them private clubs. The country makes a determined appeal to tourist golfers, notably along the Costa del Sol, on the Mediterranean coast. Indeed, American Robert Trent Jones, the golf course architect, maintains a permanent office there and probably has altered more acres of Spain than El Cid, the medieval Spanish warrior who led the fight against the Moors.

Discussing the history of golf in Spain, Figueras-Dotti said that its origins could be traced to foreigners, chiefly British, together with some Americans. The local economy was not conducive to golf, but the weather was, and the foreign element in Spain was largely unaffected by local economics. Understandably, many of the early courses were designed by British architects. The early clubs, which served as social centers for the foreigners, were restrictive, but it was common for young Spanish boys to be hired as caddies. These boys, whose families were too impoverished to send them to school, were thus introduced to golf. While times have slowly changed in Spain, it is still common to see clusters of young men gathered at golf clubs, offering their services to newly arrived players.

During a recent excursion to Spain, caddies were mandatory at the Club de Campo, on the outskirts of Madrid. A terrific course that was designed by Javier Araña, Club de Campo offered problems – including several tee shots over groves of trees – that led the players to seek all the help they could find – including caddies.

Aside from the language barrier (although one could struggle through with uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, and nueve, to designate club choice), it was routine upon approaching a green for the young caddies to hand you and your companions your putters, then scurry to the next tee where they would take the woods from the golf bags and slip into their collective imitations of Ballesteros. Several boys showed remarkably good swings, and amid the flow of Spanish, the name “Ballesteros” was heard from time to time.

PARALLELS between the potential spread of golf in Spain and the game’s early growth in our own country are hard to ignore; golf was imported from abroad in each case, and at its earliest phase the game was chiefly an activity of the rich. Most of the best of our early golfers – either homebreds like Johnny McDermott and Francis Ouimet or expatriate Scots – came from the caddie yards. It seems more than coincidental that the modern gifted Spaniards, led by Ballesteros, also surfaced from the caddie ranks.

Indeed, one follower of the game speculated that the current decrease of caddies in the United States – supplanted largely by motorized golf carts, a profit center now for many American clubs or for their professionals – may underlie an international trend toward parity among American and non-American players. Lengthy American domination might be on the wane; i.e., Europe’s Ryder Cup victory last autumn, Sandy Lyle’s victory in the 1985 British Open, Bernhard Langer’s victory in the Masters last April, and the performances of Taiwan’s T.C. Chen, Canada’s Dave Barr, South Africa’s Denis Watson, and Ballesteros in our 1985 Open.

If further evidence were needed, Spain won four of eight World Cup competitions from 1976 through 1984 (no tournament was played in 1981); the United States won three, and Canada the remaining one. Spain’s four victories in the two-man competition involved its four ex-caddies, Ballesteros, Piñero, Rivero, and Canizares, plus Antonio Garrido, who teamed with Ballesteros to win in 1977.

For all the success enjoyed by what has become cutely called the Spanish Armada of golf during the past decade, Figueras-Dotti worries about the future of the game in his country; will the interest generated by Spain’s half-dozen or so highly skilled players sufficiently involve the citizens and help perpetuate this conspicuous source of national pride?

GOLF IN SPAIN may lie presently at the confluence of two forces; the Ballesterian pressure to broaden the base of public interest in the game, and national economics.

Spain has plenty of people; its population exceeds 38 million. Discretionary income, money for entertainment and recreation, however, is not plentiful; Jorge de Ceballos, the manager of Ballesteros as well as an officer for Iberia Airways, the national airline, admitted that many Spanish people are poor, a factor that may bar any widescale embracing of golf by the general population. The man on the street is not about to lay out the better part of a week’s pay for a round of golf at one of the rare public courses where he might be allowed to play.

The situation has to be a trifle puzzling to a golf-oriented tourist, for example; he sees sleek new buildings among centuries-old structures, restaurants overflowing with diners, marvelous shops, and streets teeming with automobiles (chiefly Seats, the Spanish version of the Italian Fiat). Indeed, the traffic is overwhelming; cars lineup five abreast across three lanes, and when the signal changes, the subsequent broken-field driving is a wrenching adventure, leading the terrified tourist to conclude that the sane in Spain should stay mainly on the train.

It also raises the question of how poverty-ridden a land can be with all these symbols and symptoms of progress. Is golf for the masses truly beyond reach? Spain clearly recognizes the allure of golf to one of its major revenue sources – the tourist – and the country is now showing an increasing interest in making golf accessible to its own citizens.

It may well be that the Spanish Armada is destined for expansion into a sizable fleet in the not-too-distant future – bad news for today’s crop of international players. And the land that gave the world Placido Domingo, the superlative tenor of the Metropolitan Opera, and Julio Iglesias, may have to erect a statue to yet another hero, Seve Ballesteros, the Iberian Peninsula’s answer to Arnold Palmer, as a great popularizer of golf for 38 million Spaniards.

The Canary Islands, scattered in the subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the northwestern hump of Africa, belong to Spain, so golf is listed among the islands’ attractions, including here on Lanzarote. The Canaries, incidentally, have nothing to do with yellow songbirds; rather, the islands’ name is derived from the Spanish word for dog, an animal well represented on the islands. (USGA Museum)

Seve Ballesteros is among the best-known golfers in the world, but he hasn’t forgotten his early days as a caddie in Santander, Spain. He is militant for the cause of public golf in his native country. (USGA Museum)

Contrary to some popular notions, Spain is not a flat country. Its golf courses often afford marvelous vistas such as that at Manga Mar Menor, in the Province of Murcia, in the Southeast. (USGA Museum)