Mark Lawrie jokes about bringing friends from The R&A to his home course in Buenos Aires, the Hurlingham Club, which was founded in 1888.
“You go into the main lounge, and there’s a picture of the queen,” said Lawrie. “You walk into the bar and there’s an image of Winston Churchill. My friends said to me, this is so British, it irks.”
A fourth-generation Argentine, Lawrie takes no offense at the jibe.
“Although Argentina was mainly colonized by the Spanish and the Italians, there is a huge British influence here,” said Lawrie, who has served as the executive director of the Asociación Argentina de Golf since 2000. “Especially in terms of the economy and the adoption of certain cultural aspects – including sport – I would say there were closer ties with the United Kingdom.”
British expatriates came to Argentina in the 1850s, and by the end of the 19th century, they were forming golf clubs. Other imported games, such as cricket, polo, rugby and soccer, were also gaining popularity.
“This very tight connection with the British didn’t occur to the same extent in the rest of South America,” said Lawrie. “It wasn’t a huge colony, but its impact was sizable; it was felt from railways to banks to business at large, and it lasted until the 1930s.”
Lawrie remembered an incident from his childhood, when he overheard family friends telling his parents that they were “going home” to Britain for the holidays.
“These people were 50 years old and were born and bred in Argentina,” Lawrie said. “I recalled pointedly asking my parents, why do they say they’re going home? There’s this quirky allegiance here.”
Quirky, perhaps, but that bond was also genuine and heartfelt, and it extended to Lawrie’s family.
“My father Ivor, who died just a few weeks ago at 92, volunteered to fight in World War II for the British,” said Lawrie. “That capsulizes how people felt here, and what the allegiances were.”
Lawrie, 57, just helped to conduct the 109th Argentine Open, which is the seventh-oldest golf championship in the world.
“It’s 50 years older than anything else in the region,” said Lawrie, who will move on to The R&A on Jan. 31 as its director for Latin America. “There’s a rhyme and reason why certain things are the way they are. Much of life here is newsContented in club life – the founding of golf clubs was in true British fashion, with the course next to a railway station. The city of Hurlingham was born and developed around the club and the railway station, just like Ranelagh Golf Club and Fisherton farther out in the provinces.”
Golf administration evolved in an eerily similar fashion to the USGA. In 1895, the same year as the USGA’s debut, a group of five golf clubs – the same number of clubs that founded the USGA – banded together to form a committee to conduct the River Plate Amateur Championship. That group evolved into the Argentine Golf Association, which was founded in 1926.
“The first wave of golf in Argentina was basically British – in fact, the minutes of that first meeting were preserved in a book, and they’re in English,” said Lawrie. “The first teachers were mainly Scottish, and this core group also taught the local pros who would succeed them.”
The successors to those Scotsmen were Argentine. Lawrie called it “the golden gentlemen’s era of Argentine pros. They were not highly educated, but they picked up the way golf was played and courses were designed. It was a passing of the baton.”
Roberto De Vicenzo is the leading example of the pros who came out of this transition from Scottish to Argentine professionals. Now age 91, De Vicenzo won more than 200 tournaments around the world, including the 1967 British Open and the inaugural U.S. Senior Open in 1980. Named to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1989, he is also known for signing an incorrect scorecard and losing out on an opportunity to play off for the 1968 Masters Tournament.
“Roberto lived in Ranelagh and caddied at the club,” said Lawrie. “In those days, you didn’t become a pro if you hadn’t been a caddie and won your caddie championship. When you think of it, it’s very fitting that Roberto’s major was the British Open, considering where he came from and the stories he must have heard.”
Other talented Argentine golfers from that era included Antonio Cerda, Fidel de Luca and Leopoldo Ruiz. Cerda teamed with De Vicenzo to win the inaugural World Cup (then known as the Canada Cup) in 1953 in Montreal. Travel was arduous in that era: De Vicenzo told Lawrie of traveling by ship to Europe – a 32-day voyage – to compete in post-war tournaments.
“They didn’t have many golf balls, so it wasn’t like they were hitting balls into the sea along the way,” said Lawrie. “He talked about getting to England, where post-war rationing was still in effect. He’d tell them, ‘I’m a big guy, I need a lot of food.’
“That was a lovely time in golf in terms of characters and the stories they told,” said Lawrie.
Part II: The golf boom of the late 20th century and the rise of Angel Cabrera.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.