Wednesday 24 January 2018

Paraguay retains capacity to upset golf's upper classes

With only eight courses, it's a case of never mind the width, feel the quality

31-year-old Fabrizio Zanotti captured the BMW International Open to become Paraguay's first winner on the European Tour
31-year-old Fabrizio Zanotti captured the BMW International Open to become Paraguay's first winner on the European Tour

Dermot Gilleece

At first glance, just about every South American country seemed to be involved in the group stages of the World Cup, until closer inspection revealed notable exceptions. Among the absentees was Paraguay, where there must be more than a little envy these days at events in neighbouring Brazil.

As one of the continent's poorest countries, Paraguay doesn't often have cause for celebration on the world's sporting stages. Which makes their successes in golf all the more remarkable, especially for a country which, at the latest count, can boast only eight courses, the same number as our northern counties of Armagh and Tyrone.

Last Sunday in Cologne, 31-year-old Fabrizio Zanotti captured the BMW International Open to become Paraguay's first winner on the European Tour. Yet in terms of international achievement, he would rank no higher than third on his country's roll of honour.

Memories remain vivid of Carlos Franco on his US Masters debut in 1999, tied sixth behind Jose Maria Olazabal with such luminaries as Phil Mickelson, Nick Price, David Duval and Lee Westwood for a reward of $125,000. His first thoughts then were for his unfortunate country in the wake of the assassination of vice-president Luis Maria Argana, which precipitated the exile of president Raul Cubas Grau.

"The poor people in Paraguay," lamented Franco, who was soon to be appointed his country's Minister for Sport. "They need to see me [on television]. I hope what I do here will be something to give them hope. The poor people need that."

These circumstances were very different from the sight of Franco, six years previously, in the Dunhill Cup at St Andrews. In fact, the occasion had more to do with Colin Montgomerie, whom a sports-feature writer with a London daily once referred to as "pure gold". "That man never fails to deliver, even when he refuses to speak," he remarked.

St Andrews '93 was an occasion when Monty did both, having suffered the indignity of losing 75-74 to a golfing unknown named Raul Fretes. It sent Scotland to an unthinkable 2-1 defeat against Paraguay after Franco had beaten Sam Torrance 70-74. Ever helpful, Monty had offered the perfect preamble to such a happening when he observed on the eve of battle: "If we can't win this one, we might as well pack up and go home."

Remarkable things have occurred on that celebrated 18th green. For 71 holes of the 1970 Open Championship, Doug Sanders stuck with his long-established practice of not using a white tee. But on the fateful 72nd, he decided to place a white tee in the ground and went on to squander a glorious chance of victory by missing a 30-inch putt. Then there was Des Smyth's curious Dunhill Cup experience of 1988, when rapidly descending fog forced him to wait overnight before completing a two-putt par for victory over Nick Faldo in the semi-finals against England.

In the case of hapless Monty, his opponent had the temerity to hole a downhill, left-to-right 30-footer for an outrageous winning birdie. "I will remember my putt on 18 all my life to win for my country," said the emotional 28-year-old from Asuncion. While Monty, pulling one of his thunderous, tortured faces, managed to force "I didn't expect this, to say the least," through tightly clenched teeth.

There was another embarrassing defeat to India's Gaurav Ghei in 1996 and these experiences stayed with him right up to the Dunhill Cup finale in 2000, when he expressed relief at avoiding the role of "golfing ambassadorship with Third World countries." Then strangely modest, he added "I don't want any headlines this time around," though we all knew where he was coming from.

In the recent US Women's Open at Pinehurst, Julieta Granada carded a closing 68 to share 22nd place behind Michelle Wie and earn $40,327. Which was a long way behind her biggest cheque from golf. This was an LPGA record $1 million when, as a 20-year-old rookie in November 2006, she captured the ADT Championship to become the Tour's first Paraguayan winner.

Mind you, the American scene was already familiar to her, given a victory in the US Girls' Junior Championship of 2004 when she was also a quarter-finalist in the US Women's Amateur Public Links. These and other achievements brought the American Junior Golf Association's Rolex Player of the Year Award for 2004. A year later, in her last amateur season, she won the South Atlantic Ladies, which has Ireland's Claire Dowling among its champions.

Though she has competed on the Ladies European Tour, Granada's activities these days are largely in the US. In the event, another remarkable triumph came in 2007 when she and compatriot Celeste Troche combined to win the Women's Professional World Cup of Golf for Paraguay by a stunning, seven-stroke margin over the US in second place. Small wonder she has twice been Paraguay's Athlete of the Year.

Rounds of 68, 63, 69 and 67 for a 13-under-par aggregate of 267, brought Franco the 2004 US Bank Championship in Milwaukee, his fourth and last victory on the PGA Tour. Recently turned 49, he contents himself with the odd appearance on the Tour and hardly needs the money, given career tournament earnings of about $9.5 million. Admirably generous with his wealth, he has raised more than $700,000 for the sick and needy of Asuncion, including victims of an horrific fire which claimed nearly 500 lives in August 2004. Yet this shouldn't surprise us from a man who grew up in abject poverty in a family of nine who shared a one-room, dirt-floor abode.

An introduction to golf came courtesy of his father who was a caddie and later greens superintendent at a local Asuncion course where, playing barefoot, Franco was shooting par as a 14-year-old when he won a pair of golf shoes in a caddies' tournament. The ultimate golfing distinction came with the establishment of the Carlos Franco G and CC in Arroyos y Esteros, a small city 67km from the capital.

We're told that Zanotti's first experience of the game was as a two-year-old, running behind his father with a small stick and a ball. Now, the challenge of following gifted predecessors in Paraguayan golf, should be sufficient to keep him suitably focused.

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