Philippine Olympic team

Rio 2016: Miguel Tabuena

Bob Guerrero

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Rio 2016: Miguel Tabuena
The 21-year-old Filipino golfer grew up idolizing Tiger Woods. He'll chase his own greatness on the golf course at the Rio Olympics

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Miguel Tabuena has a funny story from his recent appearance at the US Open in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. The 21-year-old Filipino only got into the year’s second major by winning a qualifying event in the Bay Area where playing with short pants was allowed. Not expecting to qualify, he thus didn’t pack any long pants, which are de rigeur for most top-level golf tournaments including the Open which was taking place right after. 

Fortunately a phone call to his sponsor and a few golf trousers were express mailed to Tabuena in time for the event.

At Oakmont Tabuena ran into world number 4 Rory McIlroy, the 4-time major champ from Nothern Ireland at the practice green. When Tabuena introduced himself, McIlroy, who is also a member of the Nike golf stable, cracked into a wide smile and said, “Oh, you must be the guy who didn’t bring pants.” 

Tabuena might not have been 100% prepared to crash the US Open party, but no doubt he will be ready for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where golf returns for the first time since 1904 when the games were held in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Philippines’ top-ranked golfer is currently perched at 140 on the official world rankings, good enough for a tee time next week at Rio De Janeiro’s new Olympic Golf Gourse at Reserva de Marapendi in the outskirts of Brazil’s fabled city. 

The Olympic competition will feature 60 golfers each for the men’s and women’s divisions, with the top 15 players of each gender qualifying, but a maximum of 4 from each country. The remaining slots are allocated to the highest-ranked players from countries that did not already have two players in the tournament. Tabuena is the 37th highest ranked player in the field. 

“I would have never have dreamt of calling myself an Olympian,” he confesses. The sport’s existing holy grails are its majors, the U.S. Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, (known as the Open Championship in the British Commonwealth), and the recently-concluded US PGA Championship. 

“I’m just lucky and blessed to have caught fire at the right time. My game is in a really good place right now.” 

The last few months have seen the Pinoy hit his stride. Last December Tabuena won the ICTSI Philippine Open in Luisita, Tarlac. Rain shortened the tournament from 72 to 54 holes, but it didn’t matter: the triumph firmly ensconces Tabuena in the pantheon of Filipino golfing greats who have won the prestigious event. Now he can count himself in the same company as Larry Montes, Celestino Tugot, Ben Arda, Robert Pactolerin, Frankie Miñoza, and Angelo Que.

In January he placed fourth in the Singapore Open and then tied for second in the Malaysian Open soon after. That latter finish netted him $280,000 USD in prize money, all of it tax-free. 

In the middle of 2016 Tabuena has grabbed a top-20 in Mauritius, qualified for the US Open, finished 22nd in Taiwan, and just last week claimed another top-10 in the King’s Cup in Thailand. 

His self-belief is understandably sky-high. 

“My game is really not that far away from that of the top players. I say that with confidence,” he asserts without a trace of conceit. 

“Their advantage is they are more used to playing in front of a lot of people.” 

Miguel Tabuena missed the cut at the US Open but gained valuable experience. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

Tabuena missed the 36-hole cut in the US Open but he regards his major experience philosophically, saying that playing there made him a stronger golfer. 

“The greens were like marble,” he says. Oakmont’s dancefloors were rated an insanely high 14.7 on the Stimpmeter, the United States Golf Association’s official device for measuring green speed. The fastest greens Tabuena had ever played on previously were rated 12

Although the Olympics was never on his radar as a kid growing up playing golf, Tabuena has always been a fan. In the past he has tuned into the athletics events and was enthralled with Michael Phelps’ exploits in the pool and Usain Bolt’s on the track.

“It would have been nice if Gilas had made it,” he laments of the national team’s failed Olympic Qualifying Tournament bid. Tabuena says he tries to watch all the Gilas matches and was in attendance for the France game in Mall of Asia. 

“I’ve been asked which one I’d rather win, a major championship or the Olympic gold. It’s a difficult choice,” he admits as his face contorts in indecision. 

“Growing up playing golf, of course I would have to say it’s winning a major, but I wouldn’t say it’s more important than winning an Olympic Gold. You can say in the Olympics I’m representing the country, but I’m really representing the country every time I play.” 

Tabuena plays with a ball marker with a tiny Philippine flag on it.

Several big name players have backed out from the Olympic golf competition because of fears of the Zika virus. But the cancellations only give Tabuena hope, since he thinks it improves his chances of doing well. The event will be strokeplay, with 3-hole playoffs settling ties for the first 3 places. 

If Tabuena is to reach the podium, he will need to outplay some seriously good players. Top Americans Bubba Watson and Ricky Fowler will be there, as will Masters champ Danny Willett and another former major winner from England, Justin Rose. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, champion of the British open just two weeks ago, is also in contention for gold. 

Born to be an athlete

No doubt Miguel was always destined for greatness as an athlete. His grandfather Louie Tabuena was a star for Letran’s NCAA title-winning basketball team in the early fifties. A son of avid golfers, Miguel began playing at the age of one year, 8 months old. 

“One of my earliest memories is being in Alabang Country Club, hitting balls while wearing diapers, drinking milk from a baby bottle after every shot,” he says. 

“Growing up I wouldn’t watch Barney or Sesame Street. Instead I’d watch videotapes of Tiger Woods.” 

Tabuena was so precocious that he came out in a TV commercial for milk formula at the age of 4. He got his high school diploma by being home-schooled, a better option for his development as a golfer. Tabuena spurned offers to play collegiate golf in the states and instead turned pro at the tender age of 16.

Now his golf career is on the upswing, as evidenced by his sizzling play in the US Open qualifier, where he carded a dazzling 7-under 29 over one 9-hole stretch. 

“If I can find that feeling again,” he muses,” I can beat anyone.” 

Tabuena is also determined to help boost the popularity of golf in the country. Worldwide the game is in the doldrums, with downturns in average rounds played reported in some countries, especially the US.

“I think it’s totally my responsibility to grow the game. I’ve been put in this position for a reason. I will do what I can. I love the game and I believe we have the talent to compete at the highest level.” 

Tabuena notes that while the Philippines has only 4 players with full playing cards in the Asian Tour, (himself, Que, Tony Lascuña and Juvic Pagunsan), Thailand has 25. (Tabuena is fourth in the tour Order Of Merit.) 

According to Tabuena Philippine golf has a “deep bench,” and he notes up-and coming talent like Clyde Mondilla, Rupert Zaragosa, and Charles Hong as the Pinoys who can take the next step up. 

But right now it’s Tabuena who we can pin our hopes on. And despite his recent troubles on and off the course, Tiger Woods is still Miguel’s inspiration. The two have never formally met, but there was one close encounter 16 years ago. The 5-year-old Miguel traveled to China with his family to watch an event where Woods was playing.

“He was waiting by the tee, and I crawled over and touched his foot,” Tabuena recounts with a smile.

Miguel Tabuena has touched golfing greatness already once in his life. Could he do it again in Rio? – 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.

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