Island dreamers: As PGA Tour stars played in Charlotte last week, PGA Tour hopefuls converged in Jamaica

May 7, 2018

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — Passport in one hand, an oversized trophy at his feet, Michael Buttacavoli was speeding toward the airport on Sunday afternoon in a crowded minibus when he had a thought that could serve as both his personal mission statement and a slogan for the far-flung tour he calls home: “You never know when your luck is gonna change.”

A couple of hours earlier, Buttacavoli, 30, had been declared the winner of the PGA Tour Latinoamerica’s BMW Jamaica Classic when the final round was washed out due to persistent lightning strikes. Can’t say he didn’t earn it: On Sunday morning Buttacavoli had stormed to a three-stroke lead during the completion of the third round, posting a course-record-tying 62 capped by an eagle-birdie finish. Knowing that a washout was possible, he said treated those 18 holes as if it was the final round. Standing over his do-or-die second shot into the par-5 finishing hole, “My hands were shaking,” Buttacavoli said. He hit the green and made a clutch two-putt birdie. Then the waiting game began.

During the weather delay all the players clustered under the overhang at the open-aired restaurant of Cinnamon Hill Golf Course. The Wells Fargo Championship played on the lone television — a poignant glimpse of a faraway life to which every player aspired. Buttacavoli sat around a table with some pals from the tour, telling stories to kill time and cut the tension. 

The best tale was circa 6th grade, when he was shot in the head at close range with a BB gun, which led to a two-week hospitalization because of swelling in his brain. The day he was released he went for a celebratory dip in the ocean…and was stung all over his body by a venomous man o’ war. “I’ve had a few near-death experiences,” Buttacavoli said. 

In golf, too: He is the Crash Davis of the Latinoamerica tour, having played 82 events since its founding in 2012, more than any other American. Buttacavoli would love to be on the other side of the TV but he is a terrific ambassador for the Latinoamerica tour; Spanish was his first language growing up in South Florida, thanks to his Cuban mother, and in victory Buttacavoli gave a series of eloquent bilingual interviews. One phrase lingered: Una victoria es una victoria. A win is a win.

The wet finish didn’t put a damper on what was a successful second edition of the Jamaica Classic. Buttacavoli’s three-round total of 21-under, and the cut coming in at five under, was testament to the purity of the greens. Carved out of verdant jungle and playing down to the sea, Cinnamon Hill looked like a movie set, and in fact a waterfall visible on the back nine had a cameo in the James Bond flick Live and Let Die.  

If you were looking to experience the fun and exoticism of the Latinoamerica tour, Jamaica offered a taste:  a temporary bar near the clubhouse served nine kinds of rum and the bartenders wielded machetes to cut off the top of coconuts, into which straws were inserted; to beat the heat and humidity, many players wandered around sipping the coconut water, an excellent source of electrolytes. Everywhere you looked there were unexpected sights: players with diamond stud earrings (Danny List, a stylish young Aussie who finished 16th); dads serving as caddie (Steve Thresher for his son Jason, who finished 19th); non-traditional headgear (Ross Beal’s visor emblazoned with MAKE THE GOLF BALL CURVE AGAIN); man-buns (too many to annotate). 

There are always a smattering of family members on the bag but no player on the Latinoamerica tour has enough dough to employ a regular caddie and so local loopers are pressed into service at every tournament. In Jamaica that meant dreadlocks were plentiful between the ropes and the on-course lingo quite colorful. A good shot might bring a fist-bump and one word of acclaim: “Respect.” Hit a truly great shot and the player would be addressed with the ultimate honorific: “Way to go, big bruddah.” 

At the end of the day, many of the caddies made the two-and-a-half drive back to Kingston. A bunch of the players were posted-up at a Hilton attached to Cinnamon Hill, and they would carry their own bags back to the room.  (Many, in fact, are canvas carry bags, as big leather Tour bags are harder to travel with. Still, having one is a low-key status symbol.) 

Life on the Latinoamerica tour — where the total purse of each event is a mere $175,000 — is a constant struggle to save a few bucks, so other players fanned out along the coast into cheaper resorts or crammed into Airbnbs. Luke Vivolo, having played golf with the owner last year, snagged a sweet rate at Half Moon, a gorgeous, ultra-exclusive retreat favored by the British royal family. But then he got hit with the $30 cab ride to the course and was left lamenting his rotten luck. Other players could be seen hitchhiking along the A1 roadway. 

Buttacavoli has plenty of colorful stories from his years on the tour. There was a travel day a few years ago from Montevideo to Lima to Bogota to Pereira, Colombia, featuring so many flight delays and diversions it took him nearly 24 hours…and after arriving at 3 a.m. he was on the 1st tee seven hours later. At last year’s Flor de Cana Open, in Nicaragua, Buttacavoli survived an epic 10-hole playoff that necessitated lights being brought out onto the course. [image:14134211]

But with two wins in the span of eight months, Buttacavoli is suddenly upwardly mobile, racking up World Ranking points (he just moved from 802nd to 505th) and now sitting third on the Latinoamerica tour order of merit ($35,175), with the top five at season’s end securing playing privileges on the tour. But minor-league golf forces a series of big decisions. Buttacavoli had been focused so far in 2018 on trying to Monday qualify for Web events — should he take his fine form back out there? Does he now focus on the Latinoamerica tour and try to safeguard his spot in the top 5? 

Sunday evening he flew into Houston, where he would crash at the home of Jackie Burke’s grandson and then on Monday morning compete in local qualifying for the U.S. Open. If he survives that, the ensuing sectional qualifying would force him to miss the Quito Open in Ecuador, a popular tournament on tour. More immediately, he’ll travel from Houston to this week’s Costa Rica Classic. For the dreamers on the Latinoamerica tour, the hustle never stops. “I’m so thankful for this tour,” Buttacavoli says. “I’ve learned so much about myself and my game. I’ve made great friends and been to so many cool places. But nobody wants to be out here forever.”