KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Andres Romero’s timing was impeccable.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was standing in a small group behind the first tee at Kapalua when Romero showed up for his opening shot in the Mercedes-Benz Championship. He nodded in Romero’s direction and whispered, “This is a good one, here.”
Just then, Romero turned and walked over to a familiar face and said, “Que pasa, amigo?”
He next stepped over to Finchem, smiled and shook his hand.
Romero was the PGA Tour rookie of the year in 2008, and while the tour does not release votes, this should have been a landslide. He was among four rookies to win last year, but Romero was the only one to play in all four majors (he had top 10s in two of them) and the only rookie to reach the Tour Championship.
Some might argue the 27-year-old Argentine was not a true rookie. The year before joining the PGA Tour, he nearly won the British Open, and he tied for sixth in his first World Golf Championship.
Then again, imagine going to a foreign country to learn new places and new faces, barely able to get by in the language.
“It was difficult,” Romero said through his interpreter, Marcos Virasoro. “New courses, new people, new places. But I was lucky to win in one of my first starts here, and that gave me confidence. I was used to playing two years in Europe. I knew who I was playing against, and when I won in Germany, I knew I could beat some guys.
“When I came here, it was different,” he said. “I knew the people from TV, but I didn’t know how they played.”
He knows them now — he was paired with Tiger Woods in the first round of Firestone in 2007 and in the third round at the Masters last year — and they are getting to know him.
“I love the fact he’s so aggressive,” said Anthony Kim, one of the few Americans whom Romero considers a close friend. “Not too many guys out here are that aggressive. He’s not scared of anything. I love watching him.”
But their friendship is based mainly on their youth and their style, certainly not any deep conversations.
It was another Argentine, former British Open champion Roberto de Vicenzo, who once famously said, “If you shoot under 70, everybody will understand you. If you don’t, they won’t want to talk to you, anyway.”
Romero laughed when reminded of his comment, and he agrees — to a point.
He had planned to knuckle down on his English studies during the offseason but put it off. It can be overwhelming to learn a new language at his age.
Romero is one of nine children, a former caddie at The Jockey Club outside Buenos Aires. He learned to play by fashioning tree branches into a golf club, finding old balls and picking out targets.
“It’s not important for the score,” Romero said, referring to his English. “But it is for other things.”
He regrets not having a better relationship with Kim and Adam Scott, two of his favorite English-speaking colleagues. He feels trapped at pro-am dinners and sponsor parties, recognizing famous people but afraid to say anything in a language he barely knows.
And it hurts his recognition.
The PGA Championship put together a group of young stars at Oakland Hills last year — Garcia, Kim and Villegas. At the time, Villegas had never won a tournament and had only one top 10 in a major.
Is it possible Romero would have been part of that group if he spoke English as well as Garcia?
“I don’t feel bad for not being recognized,” he said. “I won at the beginning of the year, but maybe I was inconsistent. I have to demonstrate my game every week.”
Villegas also struggled with English when he came to the United States, but he was helped by spending four years at Florida. He worked as hard on his language as he did on his game.
Still, he can appreciate what Romero faces on the PGA Tour.
“It definitely makes it more lonely,” Villegas said. “My only good advice was you’ve got to commit yourself. Life becomes a lot easier, a lot more friendly, and a lot better when you can communicate. It’s tough when you can only communicate with your caddie and somebody else. I know he’s getting better. Hopefully, he gets it right on track quick.”
Romero was more comfortable on the European tour, where there are far more Argentines and other Spanish-speaking players.
“Another life,” he says with a smile. And that’s where he first earned recognition, finishing 35th on the Order of Merit as a rookie, then delivering a stunning performance at Carnoustie.
With 10 birdies on the first 16 holes of the final round, Romero took a two-shot lead until a double bogey on the 17th hole and a bogey on the closing hole, missing a playoff by one shot. A week later, he won his first European tour title in Germany.
Romero is trying to become more consistent — he missed five cuts last year and had only three top 10s besides his victory in New Orleans. He wants to play well in the majors, perhaps even win one this year. And he wants to be on the International team at the Presidents Cup, which he narrowly missed two years ago.
He also wants to fit in on the PGA Tour, which could take time.
“Everyone says ‘hi’ to me now. It looks like I’m a good guy to the rest of the people,” he said. “Maybe the language is a barrier. I think if I speak good English, I’ll have a good relationship with everybody. I understand much more than I did a couple of years ago. But I always say I have to start learning. And I never start.”