PGA Rookie Carballo Had to Dodge a Few Rocks
Foreground from right, Miguel Ángel Carballo; his coach, Carlos Lezcano; and his caddie, David Walker.
DEL MAR, Calif. — The golfer Miguel Ángel Carballo sat contentedly in the middle of the kitchen before dinner while his entourage buzzed around him. His manager kneaded dough for pizza. His caddie chopped basil and tomatoes. Shuffling between them, topping the wine glasses, was his swing coach. The fellowship in the room was like yeast, making the others’ voices rise as Carballo quietly turned his gaze from one familiar face to the next.
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Carballo was 10th on the Nationwide money list last year to earn automatic PGA Tour membership.
It was the Tuesday before Carballo’s third PGA Tour start and he was weary from playing 32 holes — all that daylight would allow — at Torrey Pines in an effort to acclimate himself to unfamiliar terrain. His lodging in this upscale beach city also felt alien to him: a four-bedroom trilevel modern California home, with sweeping canyon views that completed a picture his mind’s eye never could have conceived.
Carballo, a 32-year-old rookie from Bahía Blanca, Argentina — also the hometown of the San Antonio Spurs’ Manu Ginobili — grew up in a house that would look like a garden shed next to the 2,400-square-foot property that his caddie, David Walker, found online and secured for a steal at $1,500 for the week.
The fifth of eight children, Carballo learned to swing using a tree branch that he fashioned into a club, retrieved balls from ponds and thickets to sell for meal money and spent a decade on golf’s dusty back roads polishing his game.
Missteps by Carballo’s longtime managers, from whom he has since parted, caused him to bounce two checks last year on the Nationwide Tour. It is as if all the hardships have existed to remind Carballo that his past — and not the gilded tour life — is what is real, and what is worth keeping close.
That would explain Carballo’s decision to avoid hotels on the road and share furnished homes with Gustavo Piovano, a former Argentine professional who became his manager last year; his coach, Carlos Lezcano; and Walker, a native of Athens, Ga., who speaks Spanish with a Southern accent.
“All that time suffering when he was a young kid made him strong enough to believe that everything is going to be good,” Lezcano said of Carballo, who made his second consecutive cut on Friday in the Farmers Insurance Open.
Lezcano has a weathered face and cataract-clouded eyes that manage to see everything. He has worked with Carballo for the past decade but had never traveled from Buenos Aires to the United States to watch Carballo play until this month. He is a nervous spectator given to fits of knee slapping when Carballo’s shots go awry.
During last weekend’s Humana Challenge, at which Carballo tied for 30th, Lezcano was easy to spot. He was the one standing a few yards outside the gallery ropes making swings with an imaginary club and muttering to himself.
“Really?” Carballo said, his eyes widening. “Oh, no!”
Carballo is a compact 5 feet 10 inches and 176 pounds, with a soul patch on his chin and a sparkle in his eyes. His English is rapidly improving, but he reverts to Spanish to tell his story. Piovano, who has heard it all before, still shakes his head in astonishment.
At 11, Carballo sneaked out of the house one day before dawn to follow his brother Joel, then 14, to his weekend job. Carballo did not know what his brother did, only that he returned with his pockets filled with coins.
After a 45-minute walk, Joel disappeared behind the gates of Palihue Golf Club, where he stood in the caddie line. Carballo did not know the way home, so he waited for his brother.
A club member mistook him for a caddie and handed him his pull cart. Carballo eagerly followed the man inside the club — and everywhere else, pulling the cart through sand traps and across the greens until the man could stand it no longer. He fired Carballo after nine holes and paid him half of the standard $20 caddie wage.
Carballo was ecstatic. He had never had so much money. His brother was not amused. Believing Carballo was too young for such work, he pelted him with rocks the next few times he insisted on trailing him to the course.
Undeterred, Carballo caddied every weekend, sneaking swings with the clubs he was carrying when the golfer who hired him went off to buy a snack at the nine-hole turn. When he was not working, he used a stick to hit golf balls he found on the course, imitating the swings of the members whose bags he carried.
At 13, he was offered a job on the practice range, which required him to work weekdays. Carballo, who had just finished seventh grade, dropped out of school.
“Golf became my world,” he said.