By Ron Driscoll, USGA
PANAMA CITY, Panama – Carlos Sacre brings a visitor to the Club de Golf de Panama’s boardroom, where portraits of past presidents of the nearly 100-year-old institution are displayed.
“Like anything in golf, the club is run by gentlemen,” said Sacre, 44, a former president and current club secretary. “For years, the presidency alternated between natives of Panama and the Americans who lived in the Panama Canal Zone.”
The portraits run across the wall – from Huertemate to Lewis, Vallarino to McIlvaine, Navarro to Raymond. And so it went from the 1920s through to 1964, when John Mayles replaced Julio R. Valdes. Mayles was the last American to be club president, because that is when life in Panama changed, even for those in this genteel setting.
“There had been efforts to improve the situation in the country, for Panama to receive more money from the U.S. for use of the Panama Canal,” said Sacre. “The canal divided our country – residents needed a permit to get from one side to the other.”
On Monday of this week, Panama held its national day of mourning, known as Martyrs’ Day. It commemorates the events of Jan. 9, 1964, when protests in and around the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone triggered three days of rioting that left 21 Panamanians and four U.S. soldiers dead. The incident led to a series of treaties in 1977 that would ultimately cede control of the Canal to Panama.
“There was a lot of tension; our minister of foreign relations, a past president of the club, broke off relations with the U.S.,” said Sacre with a shrug. “Never again would there be an American president of the club. It’s a part of our history.”
Golf in Panama –and the club itself – have endured other upheavals, including the military dictatorship of Manuel Noriega in the 1980s. The club has been uprooted, settling in its current location in 1976 after its land in the heart of the city was seized by the government. But the strong current of love for the game runs through several generations of Panamanians, including Sacre and his good friend Roberto Duran, whose great-grandfather was the first of four generations of his family to serve as club president.
Duran and Sacre were chief instigators in the club landing a Web.com Tour event, which started in 2004 and will be held for the 14th consecutive year next month. Among its winners are Jimmy Walker, two-time champion Mathew Goggin and Carlos Ortiz of Mexico (2014), whose brother Alvaro is competing this week in his third LAAC.
“I want to see youngsters get bitten by the golf bug like I did when I was a kid,” said Duran, 45. “I remember watching when Roberto De Vicenzo played here.”
De Vicenzo was a five-time winner of the Panama Open, an event on the unofficial winter Caribbean tour that attracted the best players of the day. De Vicenzo’s victories stretched between 1952 and 1974, and the Hall of Fame player from Argentina also won The Open Championship in 1967 and the first U.S. Senior Open in 1980.
Arnold Palmer defeated Sam Snead in a six-hole playoff in the 1956 Panama Open for his second victory as a professional, two years before the seven-time major champion captured his first of four Masters Tournament green jackets. Other major winners to prevail in Panama included Masters champions Art Wall Jr. and Doug Ford and two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange.
“We have always been buddies and competitors,” said Duran of himself and Sacre, both of whom won their national golf title multiple times before spearheading the effort to bring the Web.com Tour here. “Bringing recognition for the game in Latin America is so important. The PGA Tour Latinoamerica (which began in 2012) came about from that same kind of conversation.”
The friends point to the promise of a new generation: club members Lucas Cabarcos (2009) and Laura Restrepo (2011) won U.S. Kids Golf world titles. Restrepo was a three-time academic All-America player at Louisville who now competes professionally. Duran’s nephew, Samuel, 10, has won multiple age-group titles.
The game provided more than a competitive opportunity for Sacre as a teenager. It gave him a refuge – and an unexpected friendship.
“In the late 1980s, I was about 15 and it was during the military crisis here,” said Sacre, who idolized Tom Watson growing up. “My dad would drop me off here, where I would be safe. I used to play with Mr. Ricardo Arias [former president of Panama and ambassador to the U.S.] and he would tell me all these stories about when he was president. I would go home and tell my father about it, and he was amazed. I still don’t wear a glove when I play, because Mr. Arias taught me not to.”
This week’s LAAC will add to the memorabilia in the club’s history room, where the autographs of 20 major champions grace a program from a clinic that Snead conducted. “They say he was able to hit the ball off the ground with his driver and hook it,” Sacre marveled.
The men have seen the stature of the game in their country of 3.9 million people rise since 2004, when Walker earned his first pro victory here in the inaugural Web.com event.
“The first year or two, guys would miss the cut and they would leave,” said Sacre. “Now 70 percent of the players who miss the cut stay here – they practice, they enjoy the city and the country. It’s an amazing place – two oceans, the canal, lots of wilderness. They call us a mini-Hong Kong or a mini-Miami, depending on who you ask.”
Sacre is equally impressed by the effort that brought the LAAC to Central America.
“This really is for the growth of the game,” he said. “To see the USGA, The R&A and the Masters, with all of their agendas, come together to do this, it makes you wonder whether other people could do the same thing for other causes.”
On Thursday, just as it did for Duran years ago when he marveled at De Vicenzo’s talent, it will come down to the heart of things, the game itself.
“It’s an opportunity to put your ball on the tee and hit it like everybody else,” said Duran, whose father won two U.S. national junior-college titles and captained his team at the University of Miami. “It is already becoming the measuring stick for the region. We need diversity and hopefully other nations will get the chance to do this, too.”