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Turkey: the name conjures images of the Mediterranean Sea, breath-taking architecture and the legacy of the mighty Ottoman Empire.
But for four Bruin golfers, this destination represented an opportunity to forge their own legacy on an international stage.
Earlier this month, two UCLA men and women golfers traveled to Antalya, Turkey to represent their countries in the World Amateur Team Championships.
Seniors Pontus Widegren of Sweden and Pedro Figueiredo of Portugal played in the men’s division, while sophomore Kyle Roig of Puerto Rico and sophomore Erynne Lee of the United States battled in the women’s tournament. Of the four teams, only Widegren’s Sweden and Lee’s U.S. finished with top 10 scores, results that disappointed the representatives of these two traditional golf powerhouses.
However, neither their results nor the stormy weather could dampen their experience.
Golf was the main order of business but the trip to Turkey also provided a valuable cultural experience for the four Bruins.
“Traveling to Turkey made me feel really fortunate. In Antalya, you can tell that there’s a big difference between the upper and middle classes. We were staying in a resort but outside of the resort there were some really poverty-stricken places,” Lee said.
Figueiredo enjoyed unique interactions with the Antalyans.
“People there seemed more closed-off, almost mean. But when you got to know them they opened up. It just shows that different people in different countries have their own ways of being,” Figueiredo said.
“I think sometimes we judge people by the first instinct and don’t really get to know them.”
Sports teach athletes invaluable life lessons. Sacrifice, perseverance, sportsmanship; all of these values are ingrained into an elite competitor.
But few sports, especially at the amateur level, provide the opportunity to go outside of one’s comfort zone and into an utterly foreign culture. Because of a growing international interest in the development of amateur golf, such doors have been opened to talents like Figueiredo, Widegren, Roig and Lee.
All four golfers competed against players representing over 50 different countries. In Antalya, the Bruins shed their blue and gold in favor of their national colors. In an intriguing twist, teammates became opponents in a competition that, for Widegren and Figueiredo, brought back memories of years past.
“It’s a little weird, but also a lot of fun. We’re used to playing for our countries. The first time Pedro and I played together was when he was 13 and I was 14. Since coming to college it hasn’t happened as often. So now, anytime we get the opportunity, it’s very special,” Widegren said.
The pairing of Widegren against Figueiredo at the European Team Championships in 2005 marked the beginning of a great friendship, one that eventually encouraged Figueiredo’s decision to commit to UCLA as a freshman.
Such lifelong bonds are an improbable byproduct of a competitive atmosphere, one in which both personal and national pride are at stake.
“It’s a fun scene where you get to know and compete against guys from all over the world. You travel to different places, maybe even to their home countries to play golf and experience their cultures,” Widegren said.
This enriching cultural experience was coupled with a rare opportunity to bond with familiar faces from their own homelands.
“I got to play with two of my best friends growing up. We are the three best players in Portugal and we had a really good time. It’s nice because I don’t get to see them as much as I used to,” Figueiredo said. “It’s always nice to spend a week with your two friends and speak your language, even though we didn’t play as well as we wanted.”
Roig and Lee will have an opportunity to redeem themselves in future international events. Widegren and Figueiredo are both seniors who plan to play professionally.
It’s a bittersweet time for the two seniors, who, in closing one chapter of their amateur careers, must now prepare to close another.
“I’m already starting to realize that I’m a senior. It goes by fast. Now, there are only a couple of months left playing for a school that you’ve grown to love. You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity you get,” Widegren said.
The week in Antalya represents the end of their international amateur experience.
“I started playing for Portugal when I was eleven years old. I grew up with that. It’s a great honor. Not to say playing for UCLA isn’t … but I think playing for your country is even more special,” Figueiredo said.
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Correction: Turkey was part of the Ottoman Empire.