PROMOTING GOLF

Promoting Golf As A “Team Sport” In Mexico
By Rosalba Papacostas and Marina Villasana

As Mexicans, we are proud of our country and of all that was accomplished in golf by former LPGA star Lorena Ochoa, but we also recognize the challenges for Mexican women to follow in Lorena’s footsteps.

After meeting many young Mexican women and girl golfers, we wanted to ensure that those who are competitive enough could reach their dream of playing professional golf in the United States. We wanted them to have opportunities that our generation did not have. 

That’s why we decided to take advantage of the momentum that Lorena created in our home nation. In 2008, we launched our effort as Impulsando al Golf Professional Mexicano (IGPM), a non-profit association established to create a team philosophy among aspiring Mexican professional golfers. 

Sports are big in Mexico, but most of the focus is on soccer and boxing. These sports get most of the media’s attention. The opportunity for ordinary people to play golf is still limited and the development of a golf infrastructure is in its early stages in our country. 

There was no sports media coverage here of a young girl who was breaking every record in junior golf on a world level. As a Mexican junior, Lorena Ochoa had one of the brightest records in amateur golf in the history of U.S. Golf Association championships, as well as at the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship, as a student at the University of Arizona. She won five straight Junior World Championships -- a record that not even Tiger Woods achieved. 

When Lorena turned professional, she continued to win and it was only then that Mexico discovered what we had. She was becoming the greatest athlete ever born in this country. When her stellar career was over, she was not only a future LPGA Hall of Fame candidate, but also a source of pride and inspiration for Mexican boys and girls just taking up golf. 

While inspirational, Lorena’s story was really atypical. Her fast rise to the top of women’s golf had not made us aware that, for most players, such a journey is long and difficult and requires continued support for many years -- especially in the early stages of the player’s career. 

The second Mexican woman to earn her LPGA Tour card was Violeta Retamoza, an All-American at the University of Tennessee. Violeta’s path to the LPGA was also fast, but she soon realized that Mexicans needed a solid structure to transition from a successful amateur career to a spot alongside the LPGA’s best players. 

One of the main challenges for that transition is that amateur players usually belong to a club, state team, or national or university team. These institutions often cover financial needs and offer a support system allowing the player to focus only on their day-to-day performance in golf. Those players benefit from team support. 

We learned that most Mexican women golfers felt alone when they turned professional because they lacked that team of supporters. Some turned professional only to realize their talent was not enough to help them succeed on the professional level. After her first LPGA season, Violeta shared her story with us and the stories of many other golfers chasing their dreams in the U.S. on the professional tours. 

She described how she was “amazed to meet people who had such enthusiasm” to help her peers. Violeta added: “I knew a huge change was coming for women’s golf in Mexico and that I was going to have an opportunity to be part of it.” 

We learned these young women were traveling throughout the U.S. with very limited resources, driving great distances on their own with no support other than from family and friends. Some had turned their cars into their homes with the back seat serving as a closet. They found it difficult to perform at the highest level when they could not afford hotels. The nomadic lifestyle as touring professionals in another country, moving to a new city or state each week, took adjustment. 

And yet, these were talented women with the passion and the discipline required to succeed in the game. As their friends, we wondered how could we help? How could we attract the interest of potential sponsors, of media and sports authorities to create awareness of the challenges these aspiring pros faced? How could we turn it into a new platform for the development of talented young women who dream of becoming a world-class players? 

We started our non-profit association to create a team to assist these aspiring Mexican professional golfers. Since the launch of our project five years ago, many have joined our effort and now Violeta, retired from competitive golf, volunteers as part of IGPM to help communicate with the professional players. This has provided continuous dialogue with the golfers we support and has given us a better understanding of their needs. 

We were just concerned individuals who had no connection to professional golf and no daughters involved in the sport. Our efforts were intially received with some skepticism, but ultimately, the objective nature of our intent helped the credibility of our effort. We had no personal stakes, no profit involved and no blood relatives who would benefit from the program. All we had when we started IGPM was our love for the game and the aim to set an example of teamwork that could inspire other sports institutions in our country. 

Soon, people embraced this concept. They too, wanted opportunity for our young pros and wanted to help them succeed. Those who got involved with IGPM offered essential leadership. They have been more than sponsors; they have encouraged us, shared advice and helped us network. 

This effort grew from women promoting a non-profit sports group to suddenly working side by side with some of our nation’s top “movers and shakers” – such as: Carlos Bremer, one of the most prominent businessmen and promoters of sports in our comunity; Luis Carlos Villarreal, a talented businessman who shares our passion for golf; Eugenio Azcarraga and Miguel Ruiz, top executives of Televisa, Mexico’s leading TV and media company; and Renato Sandoval, a young entrepreneur and owner of Golf and Spa Magazine, Mexico’s top golf magazine. 

But even with solid private sponsors, getting our goverment to join and support the project remained a challenge. Golf had been considered an elite sport and authorities were reluctant to allocate resources in a way that was relevant for female professional golfers. But finally, with the support of the Mexican Golf Federation, we offered a new way to combine efforts. 

What started as an isolated contribution has turned into an institutionalized program by the National Sports Comission (CONADE) to provide benefits to IGPM. Leaders at CONADE joined IGPM and became a key pillar for our association. One of our purposes was to transform the image of golf as an individual sport and to build the concept of a national team effort. 

Our annual pro-am tournament, also started in 2008, is used to increase awareness and raise funds for our association. This event brings together players, sponsors, golf authorities, organizers, volunteers and supporting fans. Lorena Ochoa and her coach Rafael Alarcon, have been present in every one of our pro-ams, showing their unconditional support for our efforts. One of the most respected and experienced golfers in Mexico, Rafael has always been available to provide advice and guidance for IGPM . 

Top Mexican men professional golfers also have traveled from many different places to show their solidarity and to contribute to the success of our pro-am fund-raising efforts. Their participation and interest is a testimony of the highest level of sportmanship and camaraderie. 

In addition, top LPGA Tour members have participated in our pro-ams to support their Mexican friends. Although they all compete against each other on the LPGA Tour, the players are friends and are willing to give their time so funds may be raised to support their fellow competitors. The positive energy created by having other players support our golfers, for no personal benefit, is a priceless reward for our time and effort. 

This combination of efforts is the underlying philosophy of IGPM and it has allowed our association to grow. IGPM first started providing support for two players, and now, the program has grown to support many more players. 

IGPM still does not cover all of their needs, but as players who compete against each other individually, they must learn to work as a team, share experiences and to encourage each other. They all wear our logo on their clothing. Yes, they compete as individuals, but they also are a team. 

Mexican professionals Lili Alvarez, Tanya Dergal, Devan Andersen, Sophia Sheridan and Marcela Leon were the first players that inspired the creation of IGPM. After them, Pamela Ontiveros, Ale Llaneza and Margarita Ramos have joined our team. We hope others will follow. 

We have helped our players understand this is not only about receiving financial support, but it’s also an effort that requires their time, commitment and sharing of experiences with younger players following in their path. Our dream is to have many more successful Mexican golfers. To get there, we must continue building a sense of community among our players, sponsors and golf authorities. 

Although IGPM has been able to provide some financial help to our players, we believe that our main accomplishment has been to involve many others in this effort. There is much more to be done, as we are not yet providing a complete program for aspiring golfers, but such a goal will only be achieved if more companies and institutions join this initiative. 

This program was dreamed up by amateur women golfers in a nation not previously known for golf success, but from our perspective, IGPM is everyone’s project. What has been accomplished, and all that can still be achieved, will be the result of a collaborative effort. We are proud of our results and we hope others can feel ownership of what we have built together. 

We also hope that we are now building a model for the future to develop young talent in Mexico. Individuals really can make a difference and we hope what we have created is a trail that can be followed by future generations of golfers in our country.

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