Born in Torremolinos in 1954 but now living in Madrid with her lawyer husband and two children (11 and nine years), María Acacia López-Bachiller is almost as familiar a Spanish figure on the European Tour as Severiano Ballesteros. As press officer at tour events in Spain, and around the world, for over two decades, she has become a confidante to two generations of Spanish players, from Antonio Garrido and Victor García to sons Ignacio Garrido and Sergio García. In this exclusive interview with GolfinSpain, she looks back over her career and the prospect that she will be working alongside a third generation.
Tell us a little about the years you grew up in Torremolinos, how the town was then and how it has changed.
We lived in Albacate then later Madrid, but I spent a lot of time on holidays with my great-grandmother, who owned the Hacienda de San Miguel in the centre of Torremolinos. The Plaza de la Costa del Sol was part of the garden, the same as Avenida de los Manantiales. It was a farmhosue and there was a lot of sugar cane, chirimollos and nisperos (fruit). I remember there was nothing there, and as children we’d count the cars that passed by on the main street – there weren’t very many. In la Carihuela there were only small fishermen’s houses. I remember the train passing in the middle of town.
In the 1960s, the first Swedish tourists started to arrive, and Spaniards who stayed in the Montemar area – the first hotels were the Pez Espada and the Tropicana. You didn’t hear as much about Marbella as Torremolinos in those days. I still go to Torremolinos but not to my great grandmother’s house, because it’s now abandoned.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Geography. I love to travel and gain knowledge.
Were your parents golfers?
No one in my family is or has been a golfer.
Do you play golf?
No. I picked up a club a few times in Sotogrande, where I was working for three winter seasons at the end of the 1970s, the year that Emma Villacieros became president (now president of the Royal Spanish Golf Federation) but I was only there from September to April when the summer holidaymakers had left. I worked in public relations, and a lot of a teams came down to practice there for a week during winter, for example, Bernhard Langer with the German professionals team. I spent almost the whole day with them, then we went out to dinner – it was a lot of fun. Amateur teams also came down. I remember Ronan Rafferty and Philip Walton, still just boys and amateurs, but very good amateurs! I was in charge of looking after all the teams who visited Sotogrande, and occasionally I picked up a club but I wasn’t all that interested.
So do you play any other sport?
Maybe a little swimming in summer. Even though I don’t play golf I love walking the course, caddying for my children who, like their father, do play golf.
Have you ever had the opportunity of playing with Spanish professionals?
During the period when I travelled around the European Tour I spent a lot of time with them and watched them when they were practising. They all tried to teach me but it didn’t work. Perhaps the reason is I was so saturated with golf that I didn’t feel like practising. Furthermore, even though I’m a patient person, when I try to play and on my fifth shot I haven’t achieved anything I get bored and give up.
If you could, which professional golfer would you choose to play a round of golf with?
I couldn’t choose any one professional, because I spend so much time with them all; I’ve had the good fortune to grow up with them and to have a very close relationship with all the Spanish, English, Scottish players, etc. I began interviewing fathers such as Antonio Garrido and Victor García and now I’m interviewing their sons.
What brought you to this job?
I’ve been involved with the press office at golf championships for 29 years. My first tournament was the Spanish Open in 1974. I entered the world of golf by chance. I was studying public relations in Madrid and a colleague who was collaborating with La Manga at the time mentioned in class that they were looking for girls with languages to help promote La Manga. I turned up and they took me on for the Spanish Open during four years (1974-75-76-77). So I headed to La Manga, but without being paid. I wasn’t paid for my first seven tournaments, though they gave us very nice presents.
In what ways has golf in Spain changed most since then?
Golf in Spain has changed a lot over the years. In the early years if you mentioned golf to someone who wasn’t involved in the game they looked at you as if you were odd; they knew nothing about it. On the other hand, in those days it was more personal. There was hardly anyone at the tournaments; now there are thousands. The hostesses had to do just about everything then: register the players, collect the players at the airport. In those days there were four or five journalists in the press centre; now we register 250 for a tournament.
The life of a professional was also different. They played 18 holes, practised a little before – a little while on the putting green, then on the driving range, but nothing more. Then everyone off for dinner and dancing; we had a great time. At La Manga during the Spanish Open there was a discotheque called La Bamba and we ended up there every night: everyone, Spaniards, Italians, South Americans… Now the lives of the professionals are focused exclusively on playing golf and practising, with a lot more discipline and a lot more work. There’s a lot more competition, more money in play.
Is golf still considered something of an elite sport in Spain?
No, I don’t think so. The image has changed a lot, and now everyone plays golf. There are a lot of “rustic” courses; for example, in Madrid at the Casa de Campo, where people are playing at all times, a whole lot of friends who play several holes but without any grass, nothing. I’m sure there are a lot more people playing golf than the 220,000 registered players (with the Royal Spanish Golf Federation). It’s become a more popular sport. Politicians have also taken up the sport. Felipe Gonzalez (Spain’s first socialist president) never wanted to have his photo taken with golfers because he thought golf’s image wasn’t very good. Now José María Aznar plays golf whenever he can get away and is happy to be photographed with golfers. Also playing the game are ministers, managing directors, actors… People from other sports are also really getting into golf as a hobby, which helps its popularity: footballers, tennis players, bullfighters… More and more companies are organising tournaments. In fact, there’s a boom in golf at the moment.
Have you noticed any increased effort by politicians in recent years to help people take up the game, especially the young?
Autonomous regions are taking golf more and more seriously.They sell it as a product and are investing a lot of money in it. One clear example is the Junta de Andalucía, which supports all the professional tournaments held in the region, such as the Volvo Masters Andalucía. They know that all the money they invest is returned immediately.
What would have to be done to make golf a truly popular sport?
For a start they have to build more golf course in small towns, with accessible prices, where anyone who wants to can go and play golf, pay their green fee and that’s it – without having to build courses in luxury urbanisations where they make a lot of money from it. I appreciate that it’s difficult because anyone who builds a course has to make it profitable, but it’s a pity that not everyone can play golf. Another good way of promoting the sport is what they are doing in Salamanca, for example; promotions with schools in which they take children to visit the courses and have classes every Saturday during winter. They show them the course, and give them a cap and club to play with. It’s a great promotion because the kids end up being hooked on golf, and also drag along their parents. I’m sure they do this in other areas as well.
Describe a typical press office two decades ago, for example at the Spanish Open.
Two decades ago it was nothing. It was very small; the only information was a player’s score as he passed through the ninth green, because we sent a person there to ask him. Nothing was computerised and we made a note of the results on a card. Then there was no more information until the player had fnished. We photocopied the player’s scorecards and pinned them up in the press office. Every night we had to mark the lines with a ruler.
At the Spanish Opens at the start of the 1980s, we were able to have five people following the last five groups, hole by hole, with a walkie-talkie. The organisers rented typewriters to lend to the journalists and, of course, there were no fax machines, or mobile telephones, or Internet, or computers. Everything that seems now to have been there all the time, didn’t even exist then. In the first years, the only information that came out of the press room was what we gave over the telephone to two or three local newspapers, an English newspaper and the EFE news agency, spelling out the names of the first 10 or 12 leading players.
Later, when the fax was born, in 1984 or 1985, it really changed our lives. We didn’t have to spell out the names of the players, and it was a radical change to be able to just put a sheet of paper in the machine and send it, even though we didn’t send full tournament reports. This also worked with the telex. We had someone from Telefónica there throughout the tournament, and the journalists – the few who were there – wrote their articles and the Telefónica person sent them by telex to their newspapers.
Until about three years ago, we typed a tournament report and then sent it to a central communications company, which then sent it out en masse from a central computer to other communication centres. This has all now been simplified by the e-mail. Now we write a report, and by pressing a button it goes to 500 journalists. And we can also send tournament photos.
You have been a close friend of most of the Spanish professionals during the past two decades, from Seve to Sergio García. In what way have you been able to help them, first when the Spanish press rarely covered golf and later when there was much more interest in the sport?
I’ve always tried to make sure that they spoke about golf in this country, even though during the first years it was very difficult, because it wasn’t a popular sport. But everything evolved, and there were more and more players. The Ryder Cup grew spectacularly thanks to the contribution of Spanish players, who began accumulating more and more victories. Little by little golf was mentioned more in all the Spanish press, not as much as we would have liked because we still send tournament information to newspapers, even specialist sport newspapers, and they don’t give it any importance. That’s a little frustrating but we’ve got to keep trying and continue fighting to promote the sport.
Any anecdotes about the top players over the years, Garrido, Cañizares, Piñero, Rivero, Ballesteros, Olazabal, Jimenez, García, Rodiles…?
I’d have to think about that. In general they are very accessible, much more normal than people think. Sometimes journalists from other sorts come to cover golf tournaments and they comment about how close players are compared to, for example, in tennis.
Tell us about famous Spaniards who play golf regularly and play it well
There are a lot who play; whether they play well is another matter! But more and more people are playing golf: politicians, bankers, businesspeople, actors, other sports stars. A curious thing is that journalists who until recently were staunch followers of football and who didn’t want to know or hear anything about golf are now crazy about golf; they won’t be separated from their golf bag wherever they go.
What’s your favourite golf course in the world – and in Spain?
I can’t choose a favourite course in Spain because I work with them all. As for the overseas courses, I’m was really impressed by St Andrews, for what it means, the home of golf as well as a lovely town with some spectacular buildings and where every corner of the town is a small part of English and golfing history. And the course so open, no trees, so different to what we’re used to here.
Also the Castle Pines course where they play The International in the US. The owner, Jack Vickers, invited a group of Spanish players to compete in The International, Miguel Angel Martín, Manolo Piñero, José María Cañizares. The course is in the Colorado mountains and the site is incredible: the course, the clubhouse, the dressing rooms, the treatment by the people there, their hospitality, everything is impressive. Another course would be Crans-sur-Sierre in Switzerland, where they play the European Masters. The chalet in the Alps, between mountains – a wonderful place.
It’s difficult to choose a favourite because each has its charm and a different history.
Have you been to the Masters in Augusta?
No, but I don’t think it’s bad that there aren’t any women members. You have to respect these traditions.
Would you be happy if your children wanted to become professional golfers? What advice would you give them?
I don’t know if I’d de pleased or not. What is clear is that to dedicate yourself to golf first you should have another career with university studies, whatever, beforehand. As for advice for my children, I would say they should be good people and try to make life pleasant for those around them, that they should be honorable. For me this are the most important things in life.
What do you do during your leisure time away from the golf courses and press offices?
A lot of my time I dedicate to caddying for my children.
What’s your favourite dish?
My favourite dishes are paella, pasta, gazpacho, bread with olive oil, I love a lot of things.
When you travel a long way from home, is there something you can’t be without?
I’m accustomed to travelling a lot. The only thing that I possibly miss is a national channel on the radio that enables me to stay close to home; I listen to the radio a lot here.
If you had to live outside Spain, where would you choose and why?
I wouldn’t change Spain for any other country. It’s where you can live best, where people are the happiest. If I had to live somewhere else it would probably be Italy because it’s the most similar to Spain.
A goal in your life still unfulfilled?
My goal is to make golf a lot more popular than it is now.
How important is Internet in you work?
Internet is now essential. I send daily reports in tournaments, as well as all sorts of communcations about new projects, new courses, the “skins game” that was played in the Czech Republic (last year), for example, where I couldn’t be because I was working in the press team at the Ryder Cup.