LAAC Spurs Argentine Superintendent to a ‘World’ of Opportunities

By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Matias Romoli was asked about his first visit to Augusta National Golf Club, where he worked as a volunteer member of the greenkeeping staff during the 2015 Masters Tournament.

“It reminded me of when I was 13 or 14 years old and flew up to Disney World,” said Romoli, 33, of Buenos Aires, Argentina. “That excitement, I had the exact same feeling. It’s different from what you see on TV – it’s actually better than seeing it on TV.”

Romoli’s opportunity to work at the Masters came about because three months earlier, he had been the host golf course superintendent for the inaugural Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC), at Pilar Golf in Buenos Aires. Later came the chance to work on the Olympic golf course in Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Summer Games, followed this week by a stewardship role for the fourth LAAC, at Prince of Wales Country Club, in Santiago.

Said Romoli, “When Darin [Bevard, the USGA’s director of championship agronomy] wrote me to ask whether I could be here this week, my wife immediately said, ‘You need to be there.’”

Little did Romoli know how quickly his career would be elevated when he got a call from Pilar Golf member Mark Lawrie in the fall of 2014, asking if he would be able to accommodate a group of golfers from Augusta National Golf Club.

“It turned out to be a bit of a ‘white lie,’” Romoli said with a laugh. “While I was driving them around on a tour of the course, I heard Mark and Ron Cross from Augusta National talking about cameras and TV towers and cables. I didn’t know what was happening, but it sounded huge.”

Lawrie, The R&A’s director for Latin America and the Caribbean as well as one of the three directors of the Latin America Amateur, soon informed Romoli that Pilar Golf would be hosting the inaugural LAAC.

But time was short.

“I visited Pilar Golf for the first time only three months prior to the championship,” said Bevard, 48, who works out of a regional USGA Green Section office in Kennett Square, Pa. “For every LAAC since that first one, we’ve had a full year to prepare. But for that one, there was no fine-tuning things, it was ‘feet to the fire’ right away.”

Bevard and Romoli were thrown together by circumstance, and though Romoli downplays his command of the English language, the two of them were able to find common ground and a common purpose.

“As a superintendent in the U.S., you’re very familiar with the products and equipment that are available, the grasses you are working with,” said Bevard. “It’s very different in Argentina; for instance, I found out that if it’s raining, Matias’s crew stops working. It’s part of their labor law.”

Having started his job at Pilar Golf just two years earlier, Romoli initially found the LAAC task daunting.

“This was my first big tournament ever, and the first few days I began to realize just how big it was,” said Romoli, a graduate of the University of Buenos Aires agronomy program, who had interned with the Argentine Golf Association. “But Darin was perfect for me because he’s patient, he has the knowledge and he keeps things calm. Yes, the pressure is heavy, but you need to stay focused.”

Romoli kept his focus even when nature threw a curveball, a soaking rainstorm that halted play midway through the final round at Pilar Golf.

“Later, when I visited the superintendents’ building at Augusta, I saw maybe 50 or 60 squeegees [to remove water from playing areas],” said Romoli. “In Argentina, we have maybe four of those squeegees – in the entire country.”

“We removed the standing water after the rain with anything we had – dustpans, buckets, towels, the backs of rakes,” said Bevard. “Somehow, we were able to resume play. The biggest thing was that Matias was going to figure out what it took to get it done. In terms of all the variables we encountered, I’ve never been a part of anything like that 2015 LAAC, which made it even more enjoyable when it was a huge success. And it’s only grown each year.”

Romoli has brought many of the championship practices he learned to his club and region, including using a moisture meter in preparing the course for the annual Argentine Open.

“We don’t have the same level of technology yet, but the gap is getting smaller,” said Romoli. His experience surely helped when he was asked to spearhead the effort to recruit superintendents to prepare the Rio golf course, which was struggling to secure experienced workers.

“They asked me to help bring superintendents in from other parts of the continent,” said Romoli. “I probably spent 10 or 12 hours on the phone, and I was able to recruit 12 guys from Argentina. A superintendent from Chile was able to get another eight or nine from there.”

Having led the Argentine Golf Association for 14 years before taking his R&A role in 2014, Lawrie has seen Romoli rise through the ranks.

“The LAAC has opened doors for him to experience probably the best events in the world,” said Lawrie. “For Matias to work closely with top people like Darin is a win-win; he’s been all over and relished every opportunity.”

This week’s opportunity was another case of Bevard and Romoli complementing each other.

“Jose Manuel Medina, the superintendent at Prince of Wales, doesn’t speak much English and I speak even less Spanish,” said Bevard. “After just two days, it already paid off handsomely for me to have Matias here. Even when you’re speaking the same language, the lay person doesn’t understand some of our technical terms and jargon. But I think more importantly, Matias knows the pressures that Jose Manuel is facing, so when I ask him to communicate something he can do it in the proper way. We’re a team, working together to put on the best championship possible.”