Bogota, Colombia: Camilo Villegas, Colombia, South America's poster child for golf, won the Honda Classic in Florida on Sunday, his third PGA Tour victory. He beat Anthony Kim by five shots. Literally minutes before, in his home country, American veteran golfer Steve Pate won the first Nationwide Tour event in South America ever. Villegas had just been at the Bogota Country Club, the venue for the Nationwide event, a few days prior, to promote Latin America's most important golf event ever.
Golf has taken me throughout the world but never would I have imagined I'd be writing about the sport from Bogota, Colombia, South America. When you think about Colombia, you're not necessarily thinking about the white golf ball. Drugs and guerrilla warfare have dominated the headlines from here for decades.
But Proexport Colombia, part of the Ministry of Commerce and Tourism, want to change that perception. Their slogan is, "Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay." And after spending a week here, I must say, it's hard to leave.
The days of Pablo Escobar's cartel are long gone. Escobar, as you probably know, was one of Latin America's most feared drug Mafiosos', as he once was responsible for most of the cocaine supply to the United States. His campaign of random bombings terrorized Bogota, the capital of Colombia. But after he was gunned down by Colombian forces in December 1993, the Colombian government has been through a couple administrations in which they have made great progress to assure security for the people. And now their mission is to continue to decrease crime and project a new image to the world.
President Alvaro Uribe is the country's first President to have served two consecutive, four-year terms. (He wanted a third term but the Supreme Court recently ruled against it). Under his leadership, Colombia greatly improved its security, international investment, tourism and perception. He installed military forces throughout the country, pushing the guerrillas further into the jungle. Walking the streets of Bogota, there is an abundance of police officers, military and security guards with dogs. The President and his administration have done an excellent job restoring security in the country and Colombian people feel safe.
And as a first time visitor to the country, I must say, I never once felt uncomfortable or threatened. Instead, I soaked up this magical destination for golf with beautiful landscapes and a rich, fascinating culture and history. The weather was perfect for golf - mid-seventies during the day with no humidity.
I breathed in the fresh scented aroma from the abundance of eucalyptus trees which line the fairways. We played several golf courses including El Rincon de Cajica Golf Course, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design, built in 1957. The Andes provide both a picturesque backdrop and a calming effect as we navigated the rolling hills with their variety of large trees and fauna. Juan, my caddie, endeared himself to me by reading the greens perfectly and quickly picking up my club distances. Although he spoke very little English, I had no problem understanding his advice. He knew some golf terms in English and when he did not know a word; he used his fingers to point to where I should aim. When we asked what amount to tip the caddies, they said they were not expecting tips at all but that 10,000 pesos was plenty (which amounts to only $5.00)! Needless to say, we rewarded our caddies with a lot more.
Another course we played was one of the two 18-hole lay-outs at Guaymaral Country Club, also located north of Bogota. The second course was designed by a local architect and is a links-like lay-out. American golf architect Ron Garl recently redesigned the first course. Both courses have fast, tricky greens and again, provide gorgeous scenery with the Andes in the background and chapels and farm houses darting the landscape.
Back at the Bogota Country Club, which was the first golf club built in Colombia in 1917, players from all over the world were competing for $600,000 in prize money. Former PGA Tour winner Steve Pate parred the second playoff hole on Sunday to beat Aaron Watkins. Pate was the third-round leader and shot an even par 71 in the final round but with an eagle on the 13th hole and a birdie on the 17th, he tied Watkins in regulation at 11-under-par 283. In the playoff, they both parred the par-five 18th and then went right back to the 18th tee. Pate missed a birdie putt but Watkins missed a three-footer for parr and handed Pate his first win since the 1998 CVS Charity Classic.
Afterwards, Pate told me "I probably would not have written that script but it was nice to have played well towards the end." When I asked him what it felt like winning the first Nationwide Tournament in South America, Pate replied, "I got my name in the history books now. It was a great event. People bent over backwards to treat us well. And I got a lot of support from the crowds." When asked about the perception of the country, Pate said he did not get out very much but that "the stuff you hear you take with a grain of salt because I hear that everywhere I go. Look at Los Angeles. People are afraid to go there. So I really don't give it much credence."
Pate is a six-time winner on the PGA Tour and competed on two Ryder Cup teams. He has had back problems and says it is the first time he has been healthy in about eight years. He is waiting to turn fifty to play on the Champions Tour. "I've got 14 months and 20 days approximately but who's counting?"
The Colombian government is using golf as a strategy to improve the country's image and hosting the Nationwide Tour event is an excellent start. The tournament was supported by a strong showing of local sponsors and great enthusiasm from the spectators. Bill Calfee, the President of the Nationwide Tour, said that "developing this event with our new friends in Colombia has been an enlightening process." "...When you visit Colombia, experience its culture and meet its people, the perception and reality gap really hits home. This is an opportunity to share the story of the new Colombia with the world."
The organizers of the event ensured that all involved would enjoy the week. They hosted a variety of parties throughout the week starting with a welcome reception at La Fontana Hotel. The Pro-Am on Tuesday featured Camilo Villegas and NASCAR star Juan Pablo Montoya. Juan Manuel Santos, former Minister of Defense, who is running for President in the up-coming election, joined that foursome. Later that evening, the Bogota Country Club hosted a big party with a live band and plenty of a tasty drink: Aguardiente 180, licor anisado.
Along with the golf, the city of Bogota is rich in culture and history. One of the highlights is the Salt Cathedral, built inside the Zipaquira salt mines! It is a religious center and the most unique Catholic shrine in the world, as it is built completely underground in the salt mine and most of the monuments and tributes were made from salt. It's difficult to describe it - you must experience it. Each day, hundreds of people walk the 1640 feet underground to attend mass!
Another adventure was taking the incline up 10,341 feet above sea level to Montserrate, a religious shrine that has attracted millions of pilgrims and visitors since its founding in 1640. When you look up you can view the shrine from anywhere in the city. Bogota is situated over 8500 feet above sea level so it takes some time to adjust to the extreme high altitude. Heading up the mountain even higher on the incline and then continuing the walk up to the shrine is quite the adventure. You definitely get winded quicker and need a jacket, as the temperatures drop. But the view of the city is worth the trip and if you see the shrine and dine at the charming San Isidro Restaurant, it will be an adventure you won't forget!
Other stops worth visiting include Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold), full of gold artifacts that were excavated in land where ancient tribes once occupied; Museo Botero, housing many of the famous artist's most important pieces and the Plaza de Bolivar, the area where you can see the President's palace and Congressional buildings.
When signs say 'welcome to the country of passion' they are not kidding. The passion of the people is most felt in the evening when city life takes on a beat all its own. That passion was showcased at Andres Carne de Res, a five-story restaurant and night club, complete with men and women dressed in costume who danced around throughout the evening. The patrons who dined there needed little encouragement. With a steady loud beat of Latin music mixed with disco, and with dancing girls appearing on stage periodically, the place was hopping until the wee hours. And on the way back to our hotel, there seemed to be as many people still celebrating on the streets outside as there were in the club.
Life is good in Colombia. The economy is growing. They did not suffer a recession like many parts of the world. They dress very stylishly and men will say that some of the most beautiful women in the world are in Columbia, Venezuela and other countries in South America. And the Colombian coffee is the best! There is nothing better than starting your day with a Colombian mocha cappuccino and end it with a Club Colombia beer!
But most important were the people. As Steve Pate said, they could not do enough for you. They are some of the most hospitable people I've ever met. They so want Americans to visit. The country has so much to offer. And the only 'risk' for me in Colombia was buying too many pairs of their stylish boots!
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