Spain struggles to reclaim its golf game
By JUAN LUIS GUILLEN  | April 16, 2018

Passion is the first word that comes to mind when describing the on-course demeanor of the late Seve Ballesteros, the early accomplishments of the young Jon Rahm and the fiery celebrations of Sergio Garcia at the Ryder Cup.

“No country in Continental Europe brings more history and more passion to golf,” said Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn, captain of the European team at this year’s Ryder Cup in Paris.

However, when unbridled, the same passion that has put Spanish professional golf at its highest level in decades – the “Three Caballeros,” Rahm, Garcia and Rafael Cabrera-Bello, rank among the top 25 in the world – can manifest itself in Rahm’s negative outbursts or Garcia’s five consecutive balls in the water on the 15th at Augusta.

Spain’s Nacho Elvira, who finished third as countryman Jon Rahm won the Spanish Open, gives the fans at National Golf Center a rooting interest on the European Tour.

Then, as in a traditional Easter procession, passion carries penance. The penance of Garcia, the defending champion, not making the cut at the recent Masters. The penance of having media and fans constantly scrutinizing the temper of Rahm, the 23-year-old who is No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

There also is the penance of golf in Spain, which has gone from hosting several renowned international events to struggling to keep its national open alive. Rahm’s victory Sunday at the Spanish Open(scores) also illustrates the dichotomy of Spanish golf.

In fact, while Rahm, Garcia and Cabrera-Bello, plus veterans Miguel Angel Jimenez and Jose Maria Olazabal, conquer the hearts of American and British fans and the attention of international media, the number of amateur golfers has decreased steadily during the past decade. Only an estimated 272,000 Spaniards, in a country of more that 46 million, play golf.

While many American fans can mention a half-dozen or more Spanish golfers, few could cite many golf courses in the country, beyond Valderrama, the scene of the 1997 Ryder Cup. The decrease in the number of amateur golfers combined with the financial crisis has paralyzed the development of new courses. Most of the 350-plus courses are located in the south of Spain and primarily patronized by European tourists.

A similar decline has been true within the Spanish media’s interest in the game. After the 2017 Masters, only three Spanish newspapers highlighted Garcia’s first major championship. It was Spain’s fifth green jacket, after Ballesteros in 1980 and ’83 and Olazabal in ’94 and ’99.

“Golf in Spain is stuck in the past,” the charismatic Jimenez said recently. Jimenez, 54, has won 21 times on the European Tour, including the 2014 Spanish Open. He has been an open critic of the inaction of the Spanish Golf Federation and the disconnect between the evolution of professional golf and amateur golf in Spain.

Notwithstanding, the absence of Garcia, Jimenez and Olazabal last week in Madrid proved notable. After a one-year hiatus, the revival of the oldest golf tournament in Spain was made possible thanks to the last-minute support of the European Tour. Rahm’s triumph could symbolize the beginning of a long road to reconciliation.

Juan Luis Guillen is a Spanish golf, food and travel writer based in the U.S.

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