New frontier

The PGA Tour is moving forward with efforts to spur growth in Latin America in advance of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

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PGA Tour officials will meet next week with officials from South America, Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico to discuss forming a new tour in the region that likely would serve as a feeder to the Nationwide Tour.

The Sept. 15-17 meetings in Miami will be the third set of face-to-face discussions between the Tour and Latin American officials.

“The idea around this is to create a more consistent model, week-in and week-out, . . . and to create a clear pathway for how players can elevate themselves to potential spots on the Nationwide Tour, and follow on to the PGA Tour,” said Jack Warfield, PGA Tour vice president of championship management.

The yet-to-be-named tour would be run by the PGA Tour and consist of at least a dozen events, Warfield said. Top finishers on this tour’s Order of Merit would earn Nationwide Tour status for the next season. The tour would not start until at least 2012.

The proposed tour, while meant to help improve competitive golf in Latin America, would serve as a new avenue to the Nationwide Tour for players from the U.S. and the rest of the world. There will not be any geographic restrictions on membership, Warfield said. Players can qualify for the tour through qualifying tournaments, at least one of which will be held in Latin America.

Warfield said the new tour’s events likely would have purses in the $200,000 range (similar to events on the Hooters and eGolf Professional tours). The Tour is seeking an umbrella sponsor for the circuit, similar to the business model for the Nationwide Tour.

The plan is for this new Latin American tour to award Official World Golf Ranking points, thus giving more countries access to the Olympics. The OWGR will be used to determine Olympic eligibility.

Golf will return to the Olympics in ’16 after a hiatus of more than a century. The sport is still a niche activity in Latin America – paling in popularity to soccer – but there is hope golf’s Olympic inclusion will increase its popularity in the region.

The PGA Tour lagged behind the European Tour in capitalizing on golf’s growth in Asia. It appears the Tour does not want to repeat that mistake in the Western Hemisphere. This new tour would not be the PGA Tour’s only foray into the region. The Nationwide Tour made its debut in Colombia earlier this year, in addition to events in Mexico and Panama.

There is talk of expanding the number of Nationwide Tour events in Latin America, now that the Nationwide Tour’s contract with the PGA Tour of Australasia to co-sanction events has expired. Nationwide Tour president Bill Calfee told Golfweek in July that it was “likely” that the tour would not go Down Under next season.

“We’re looking at a couple new markets in South America. That’s an area where we’re starting to spend more time,” Calfee told Golfweek. “We’d ultimately like to have maybe five events down there, and kick the season off in a more meaningful way, . . . really put some media behind a Latin American swing to kick off the season. That’s the plan, either next year or the year after.”

There are plans for a PGA Tour event, possibly a World Golf Championship, to be held at the Olympic site in advance of the 2016 Games. The event would serve as a training run for the Olympics, and an opportunity to expose PGA Tour-level golf to South America.

South America is the only continent, other than Antarctica, that does not have a tour that gets Official World Golf Ranking points (outside of co-sanctioned events).

The proposed Latin American tour likely would replace the Tour de las Americas, the leading tour in South America. Founded in 1991 as the South American Tour, the Tour de las Americas (its name since 2000) has transformed Latin American golf from a collection of individually staged events into an organized tour. It joined the International Federation of PGA Tours in ’07 as an associate member.

The TLA will receive OWGR points for the first time starting in 2011. TLA commissioner Henrique Lavie concedes that his tour has had trouble meeting some of the criteria for events to gain OWGR points, namely field strength, purse size and consistency of events.

Lavie has been a driving force behind a PGA Tour-sanctioned circuit in Latin America. He told Golf360 earlier this year that such a tour “would be finally a recognition for a region in golf. For me personally, it would mean a dream achieved. My goal, since I started, is to have a better and more consistent tour for my players.”

His dream is closer to becoming a reality.

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