PEOPLE WHO MAKE THE BARRIO PROUD.
Every barrio produces people who make the barrio proud. One of the notable people Barrio Hollywood in Tucson, Arizona, where I grew up, produced is former PGA golfer Bobby Gaona.
Hollywood is unique in that a golf course sits in its midst. The El Rio Country Club—”el country”—was a source of income for the barrio youth in the late 1950s-early 1960s, El Rio Country Club’s glory days. We’d sneak in at night and “fish” balls out of the lake and sell them back to the golfers. Since only a chain-link fence separated the golf course from some backyards, golf balls often wound up in people’s yards, and the kids would sell them back to the golfers.
Virtually every young man from Barrio Hollywood was a caddy at El Rio in those days. That’s how I knew Bobby. He’s older than I, and I looked up to him because he was one of the “premier” caddies who caddied for the golfers who paid the best and were routinely assigned a “doble,” i.e., carried two bags. I got a “doble” only once—when the premier caddy who was supposed to carry those bags was sick and I happened to be around.
On Mondays, when the maintenance work was being done, those caddies who wanted to were allowed to play golf, using old clubs provided by the pro shop. Many of the barrio kids took advantage of this, which accounts for the fact that many Hollywood caddies, like Bobby Gaona, became golfers. [I’m one of the few who didn’t.]
Up through the early 1960s, the prestigious PGA Tucson Open was played at El Rio, at which the likes of golf greats Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and celebrity amateurs like Joe Louis and Anthony Quinn played. In a recent magazine interview, Bobby said that he and his brother Jimmy would sneak into El Rio during the Tucson Open and pick up tips from watching the pros.
The Monday golf sessions at El Rio and the tips he and Jimmy gained from watching the pros paid off. In 1958, the two brothers led their Tucson High School golf team, with a record-setting score, to its first ever state golf championship at, appropriately enough, El Rio. The University of Arizona offered Bobby a golf scholarship, but he turned college down in favor of a good-paying job at a local plant. But he kept on golfing, winning the Tucson City Amateur tournament several times.
A memorable moment of his golf career, Bobby said in a magazine interview, occurred when he qualified for the 1968 PGA Tucson Open; he shot a 31 on the front nine holes of the opening round and shared the top of the leader board with Arnold Palmer. This was heady stuff for a 29-year-old Barrio Hollywood guy who caddied so, “I could buy real Levis instead of the cheaper imitations our parents bought us because that’s all they could afford.”
Gaona turned professional in 1973, qualifying for the PGA Tour, the pinnacle of the PGA hierarchy, a level reached by only a handful of Latinos. Bobby was in the company of the likes of Lee Treviño and Chi Chi Rodríguez. But Bobby had difficulty getting sponsorships, which cut his PGA Tour days short.
All this time, Bobby was making Barrio Hollywood proud. He was an inspiration to many young Chicano golfers, who read of his exploits in the sports pages. But Bobby also directly impacted the lives of hundreds of young people in his roles of a teaching PGA professional at El Rio and as the head golf coach at Pima Community College, a job he left in 1987 when, at the age of 48, Bobby qualified for the U.S. Open. Then, at age 50 he qualified for the Senior PGA Tour, in which he played for a few years. After his halcyon days on the Senior Tour, Bobby won several Senior Opens in Arizona and New Mexico.
But then, Bobby experienced some serious personal problems that in effect wiped him out financially. His PGA pension and the deep friendships he made over the years and the knowledge that young people still look up to him (he gets frequent requests to speak to youth golf groups) are what kept him going.
And to boot, he and Hollywood golfers at El Rio have come under political attack. Politicians want to close El Rio, which became a municipal golf course in 1968, on the basis that “golf is a rich man’s sport.” I was at El Rio recently. Here’s a sampling of the Hollywood folks who were playing golf that day: a retired school janitor, several retired miners, a retired truck driver, a landscaper, a retired assembly line worker, a school teacher, a retired City worker. They are in the mold of Bobby Gaona—Hollywooders coming back to their roots, which in our case, includes El Rio.
Recently, Bobby was diagnosed with cancer, which in combination with his small pension is taking a heavy toll on him and his family. Our community is trying to pay Bobby back for his years of service and inspiration by holding fundraisers for him. If we don’t support our own, who will?
Copyright 2013 by Salomon Baldenegro.