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Afoot in Argentina

It was the final afternoon of a weeklong tour of the golf courses of Buenos Aires. With a plane to catch that evening, I had scheduled one last round, at San Eliseo Golf and Country Club, a new course on the edge of the windswept pampa forty minutes south of the city. My escort was Mike Viale, a partner in a tour-operating company called Golf in Argentina, who had arranged a string of exhilarating rounds for us around the Argentine capital. Now, as we approached San Eliseo, he turned to me and said, with a big smile, that he had one last surprise in store.

And there, standing on the practice tee as we pulled in, was the surprise: Roberto De Vicenzo, the 1967 British Open champion who is best known for missing out on a playoff at the Masters a year later when he signed an incorrect scorecard—for a higher score than he shot.

Dressed in crisp trousers, wool sweater and Hoganesque cap on a chilly and overcast day, the eighty-two-year-old De Vicenzo was giving a clinic for beginners. "Buena," he said softly after a young man with a thrashing swing made solid contact. As soon as the old master had finished making his rounds, I went over and introduced myself. I asked him, in somewhat halting Spanish, what makes golf in Buenos Aires special. His eyes brightening, he characterized the courses in his native land as being "muy inteligentes"—very clever.

Golf first took root in Argentine soil in the late 1800s, planted by the English, many of whom had come to design the nation's railroads. In 1926, delegates of sixteen clubs met in downtown Buenos Aires to form a national governing body of the sport. In a sign of its prominence, the association was appointed by the Royal & Ancient to produce a Spanish translation of the Rules of Golf. Decades later, British influences remain unmistakably clear: Clubhouses old and new exude classic Tudor charm; most of the courses allow walking only.

But as I experienced and as De Vicenzo confirmed, no one travels to this alluring European-style city solely to play golf. "You must eat our steaks, get to know the country, see the estates, the tango, the beautiful women," De Vicenzo said. What's more, while the U.S. dollar remains weak in so many parts of the world, it's robust in relation to the Argentine peso, which is still recovering from the nation's economic collapse in 2001. And given its location in the Southern Hemisphere, Buenos Aires enjoys its spring and summer as we up north hunker down to fall and winter.

ORIENTATION

With more than thirty courses within an hour's drive of downtown, Buenos Aires holds the distinction of being the undisputed center of golf in South America. Most of the finest clubs are situated in the suburbs to the north and west.

While it's possible to rent a car or to travel by taxi or train to some of the courses, the best alternative is to book your rounds through a tour operator such as Golf in Argentina (golfinargentina.com) or Coolabar (coolabar.com). Not only will they shuttle you from hotel to first tee—sparing you the experience of driving in some of the world's fiercest traffic—they can provide access to exclusive clubs that otherwise might not open their gates.

WHERE TO PLAY

Jockey Club Argentino

Avenido Marquez 1700, San Isidro; 011-54/11-4743-1001, jockeyclub.com.ar. Yardage: 6,577 (Red), 6,351 (Blue). Par: 72. Architect: Alister MacKenzie, 1930. Greens Fee: $65 (Red), $35 (Blue). T+L Golf Rating: ****1/2 (Red), ***1/2 (Blue)

Few cities can lay claim to one, much less two, Alister MacKenzie designs that are open to visitors. The Jockey Club's championship Red course is a treasure. It's pure Mac­Kenzie—compact, walkable, rich in variety and a test for scratch players and the less-skilled alike. Working with a flat piece of land—Buenos Aires sits on the almost perfectly level continental edge of the pampa—the architect employed subtle angles and bold greenside contours to create holes of surprising intrigue. The most dramatic is number ten, a reachable par five with a push-up green that elbows around a deep bunker and has a severe false front. Miss short or long and watch your ball trickle off the surface. Be sure to ask your caddie for the distance a la bandera—to the flag.

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