One of the 800 destroyed buildings in Puerto Rico from recent earthquakes. (Joel Beall)
Playing Through Pain

Call to visit, cry for help: Why a minor golf event has major implications for a resilient Puerto Rico

February 22, 2020

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico — He has time to talk. Derek Olivares is part of a service crew at the Puerto Rico Open fan zone, setting up food trucks and drink tents and inflatable playgrounds. But there are no fans at Coco Beach during Tuesday’s practice round; he says they won’t arrive until the weekend. “We don’t take half-days,” Olivares, 38, says of Puerto Rico. “We have to work.”

Originally from Wilmington, N.C., Olivares’ father took a telecommunications job in San Juan in the late 1990s, relocating the family to the island’s capital. Olivares’ first love was baseball and he briefly worked in the Dominican League, although he’s gravitated to golf over the last decade. His favorites are who’d you expect, Spieth and Rory and Thomas and Tiger, but Olivares knows more than just the stars, expressing excitement that fledgling talent Viktor Hovland is in the field.

A few minutes of light chatter followed—Olivares was beyond intrigued that the Sanderson Farms Championship earned promotion to a full-status event; you could see his wheels turning on the ramifications for Puerto Rico down the line—until the awkward question had to be asked: So, how are things going down here?

Awkward because no answer can encapsulate what has been happening in, and to, Puerto Rico.

Hurricanes, landslides, earthquakes. Widespread poverty, unpaid insurance claims, its own country withholding emergency relief aid. Protests over the summer that led to the Governor’s resignation, protests last month asking the same fate of his successor.

Olivares impassively responds that, yes, it is an odd time. Not so much of upheaval but of uncertainty. He tries not to dwell on it. “Asi es la vida,” he says. “This is life.

However, collected as Olivares was, a follow-up—Is it weird, then, that a golf tournament is being held?—elicits a prompt, passionate reply.

“No,” Olivares says, his voice raising a few octaves, his head shaking side to side. “This is our time to talk to the world. Tourism is big. A call to them, ‘Please come visit.’ It is a great time to come.

“We also have to be heard, our cries for help heard. We want someone to listen.”

• • •

Michael Cohen

It is fair to wonder what the PGA Tour is doing in Puerto Rico. It is a layered response, part of which deconstructs some false narratives about the island. At its heart, though, is a pursuit of goodwill and loyalty. To understand why the Tour hasn’t left, you must understand why it returned.

As the Tour and its partners constructed its revamped schedule for the 2018-’19 season, the Puerto Rico Open’s future was ambiguous, at best. Established in 2008 as an opposite-field event to the old WGC-Cadillac Championship, the Puerto Rico Open did OK in attendance but struggled to obtain a title sponsor. While a final decision was never in place, sources tell Golf Digest the option of scrapping the event was on the table.

Then Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September 2017. Winds, storm surge and flash flooding brought brutal devastation to the island, delayed assistance amplifying the horror. Thousands died, thousands more injured. Officials estimated $94 billion in damages to infrastructure, housing, schools and hospitals. This to a commonwealth that was already billions of dollars in debt. It was the least of its worries, but Puerto Rico’s run as a Tour host seemed kaput.

“It was like a foregone conclusion,” says PGA Tour pro Rafael Campos, a native of San Juan. “Everything was in ruins. Considered another loss to the storm.”

Only the Tour was adamant it wasn’t leaving Puerto Rico. Not now, against the challenges and everyday hell the island faced. That December, commissioner Jay Monahan declared the event would be played as a charity pro-am in 2018 and re-upped its official status for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

“Our hope is that this special event in 2018 will benefit Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts to the fullest extent,” Monahan said at the time, “while reminding the world that Puerto Rico is a premier golf and travel destination.”

Monahan’s words are the crux of this championship. The Puerto Rico Open has raised $2 million for charity, to say nothing of spurring the game in a place where it was relatively dormant. (“The junior events and programs that have come from this event weren’t available when I was a kid,” Campos says.) But according to Manuel Laboy, secretary of the department of economic development and commerce Puerto Rico, the tournament has a pragmatic agenda.

“Around the globe, Puerto Rico is considered a pile of rubble,” Laboy says. “That is a creation. We hear it even here, too, from our media. The event gives us a chance to show we are back, fully. That we are open for business, and to show who we are.”

Laboy’s comments sound like a pitch, what you expect from someone in his position, yet they are supported by truths, some inconvenient. A census study found less than 50 percent of Americans knew Puerto Rico was a part of the United States before the hurricane, Laboy says. While “awareness”—if that’s what you want to call kindergarten social studies—is on the rise, it remains below 70 percent. More importantly, a visit to San Juan and other tourist-centric sites shows they are fully operational, with little traces of the devastating storm. It’s exactly the image “tropical paradise” conjures.

For the most part, that is, on the surface. At least on the northern part of the island. A trip south reveals a different reality.

• • •

The ground does not stop shaking.

On Friday alone there have been seven minor earthquakes near Guanica, an inlet on the Caribbean Sea. It has been like this since late December, what is called a “swarm,” the biggest incident—a 6.4 magnitude earthquake on Jan. 7—decimating houses, schools, churches and restaurants. Four have died, close to 10,000 Americans displaced.

From a distance, the southern Puerto Rican vista looks like a festival grounds, dotted with camping tents and temporary pavilions. Up close, it’s apocalyptic. Not every structure has collapsed; in a way, that makes the scene more unsettling, sadistic. You’ll drive down a street, thinking the worst has passed, only to see a three-story complex tumbled on a house. A residence marked with a cherry “X” means it’s been deemed unsafe. There’s a hell of a lot of red in Guanica.

Kathryn Larson, a volunteer nurse, said even those who aren’t homeless are sleeping in camps or cars outside their properties, afraid of being buried alive.

“There were multiple tremors before the big one hit,” Larson says. “They are waiting, afraid. Sleep deprivation is prevalent.” While the frequency and intensity of aftershocks is expected to subside, the U.S. Geological Survey reported Puerto Rico will likely experience tremors on a weekly basis for years to come.

Destroyed buildings are only part of the surreal landscape. A wild horse strolled across a parking lot. Stadiums, fields and parks have been turned into refugee sites. There were lines at restaurants still open, not necessarily for food but to use bathrooms that weren’t Port-a-Johns. Some of the harder-hit streets are blockaded with cement slabs.

FEMA has erected several emergency centers, with charities like World Central Kitchen and Water Mission also setting up hubs. But during the afternoon, they were mostly empty. For good reason. “The victims are not feeling sorry for themselves,” Larson says. “They are clearing out debris, at normal jobs, helping their neighbors. They are not sitting around, waiting to be helped.”

Laboy understands the optics of a golf tournament held during a crisis. But he said no resources were diverted from the victims to the Puerto Rico Open, something tournament officials also reiterated to Golf Digest.

“We can simultaneously host a world-class event with the highest capabilities while also having the sensitivity and sensibilities to care for our brothers and sisters in the southwest part of the island,” Laboy says on Friday. He adds what this week does for stimulating the economy puts the island on track to returning to normalcy. Campos made a similar remark in a separate conversation. “We can bring attention to their plight by playing,” he says.

Campos is acting as the de facto tournament host this week, but he's not playing. He is missing the event for the first time in tournament history, sidelined with injury. The Tour approached him about the ambassador position, and after marinating on it, he accepted the role.

“Obviously, I want to play. I’ve played well here,” Campos says, alluding to a T-10 in 2017 and T-8 in 2016. “However, I have said since [Hurricane Maria] that I will do anything for the island, and it’s a responsibility and honor to be asked.”

If it was meant to be a ceremonial title, Campos isn’t treating it like one. He has run multiple youth camps, tapped segments for the Golf Channel about Puerto Rico, taken fellow pros around the island to show them how it has bounced back. And after years of petitioning, Campos got The First Tee to open a chapter in Puerto Rico.

“There are many talented kids in this area, very good. For them it’s a matter of opportunity,” Campos says. “This is the start in making those opportunities more than one-day clinics.”

Before leaving, Campos wants to emphasize a point. “It took us a year to get back from Maria, and what happened with the earthquakes is a tragedy. This tournament is about the good of Puerto Rico. We for once can control a message of hope.”

Hope. That has been in short supply for Puerto Rico.

• • •

Jared C. Tilton

Earlier this week a Congressional delegation arrived in Puerto Rico, ostensibly to survey earthquake camps and infrastructure that had not been repaired since the hurricane, but mainly to stump for $44 billion in federal aid that, for reasons that remain unclear, have not been made available to the island.

“We come because we are frustrated,” said U.S. representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland. “We come because, in many respects, we’re angry that we have taken substantive action that has not been implemented as quickly as should have been done.”

On top of $44 billion that hasn’t been released, the House of Representatives has appropriated $5 billion for Puerto Rican infrastructure, housing, nutrition, education and transportation and another $16 billion in tax cuts following the earthquakes. However, White House advisors have promised to veto the legislation, claiming Puerto Rico’s government has no control of its finances.

Why its own country has turned its back on them is infuriating enough for Puerto Ricans. Adding to their resentment is the continued failure of insurance companies, refusing or unable to fulfill $1.6 billion in claims since 2017, according to the New York Times. This to a population where 40 percent lived in poverty.

As for civil unrest, more than a million people (just over three million live in Puerto Rico) took to the streets this summer in protest of Governor Ricardo Rossello after leaked texts showed Rossello and his top aides making jokes about those who died in Hurricane Maria and a death threat against a rival mayor. Rossello eventually resigned, but new Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced recently saw an uprising as well after the discovery of an old warehouse filled with emergency supplies.

The latest kick in the behind was a hacker breaking into the Puerto Rico’s Employee Retirement System and stealing $4 million in funds. As a banner read at a February protest outside the governor’s house, “Stop the madness.”

Which again raises the question: Does golf need to be here? Olivares, before hopping in a truck, says the diversion is needed more than ever.

“All you hear in Puerto Rico is negativity,” says Olivares, over the roar of an engine. “The disasters might have brought the island together, but what’s going on [up in San Juan with the government] is stirring bad feelings. A golf tournament ... the citizens might not know golf, but they know it’s a big deal. For once there is positivity to get behind. We could use more of that.”

That sentiment rings true in the southern part of the island. Larson says there is a watch party at one of the Guanica watering holes for the Puerto Rico Open on Saturday. She is not a golf fan, and from what she gathers, many of the refugees aren’t either. But they understand their island is getting a chance to do something big.

“We will get the MLB Caribbean Series in the spring, which we are excited for,” Laboy says. “There is no comparison to four days of this tournament. It is a celebration of Puerto Rico.”

For how much longer is uncertain. The Tour has not said if it’s renewing its contract next season. Campos was hoping for an answer this week. What disappointment he holds dissipates, remembering a spirit that’s kept him and his people afloat.

Puerto Rico se levantara,” Campos says. “It means, ‘Puerto Rico will rise up.’ ”

• • •

To help those affected in Puerto Rico, click here to donate to World Central Kitchen’s “Chef Relief Team," which is serving meals to earthquake victims, or here to Water Mission, a group working in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria to provide clean water and sanitation.