Play is underway in the fourth Latin America Amateur Championship and defending champion Toto Gana is one of the early leaders. Here’s the latest from the Prince of Wales CC in Santiago, Chile.

The morning starters are coming to the end of their first rounds here in the fourth LAAC at the Prince of Wales CC in Santiago, Chile. Defending champion Toto Gana has posted a 68 and is tied at the top of the leaderboard with Mark Montenegro of Argentina and Pablo Torres of Colombia. I’ve spent the morning watching the action and have seen some excellent skills on display.

The standard of play…

It impresses me every year in the LAAC but in the first few hours I’ve witnessed some exceptional ball striking and a number of incredible escapes. I think it’s the short game skills of these, mostly, young players that stands out for me. Smacking it long and straight with a driver is all very well but being able to consistently salvage pars around these highly testing greens is something else.

I watched Chile’s Jose Tomas Vargas go through the green on the short par-3 11th. His ball ended nestled in some tufty rough at the base of a fairly severe slope up to the putting surface. The pin was about six feet on with another slope down the other side about  10 feet farther on. Just looking at the predicament had me hyperventilating but Vargas just shrugged his shoulders, laughed at a pal of his who was spectating and with a nonchalance that those with my kind of short game issues could find insulting, he hit an audacious flop shot that almost disappeared up his left nostril before flying 25 feet into the air and coming down like a butterfly with gout about a foot from the cup. Ridiculous.

The setting…

Is really wonderful. We’re in the heart of this bustling and exciting city but, other than the odd siren or roaring engine, you wouldn’t know it when out on the beautifully manicured course here.

Then there are the incredible views to the towering mountains. They really are magnificent. I chatted to one of the scorers who told me that he could water ski in the summer and then snow ski in winter. It’s only an hour’s drive into the mountain to the ski lifts. I told him I only lived an hour away from skiing in Scotland and I’ve seen people water skiing on Aboyne Loch … but I had to confess, it’s probably not quite the same!

Early starters set the pace

I followed the first group out through their back nine and they were doing rather well. Mark Montenegro of Argentina reached six-under at one point and was well clear of the field. But he struggled a little on the run for home and dropped three shots to end the round on three-under. It could have been a lot worse as he started to spray it around a bit over the closing holes. His short game saved him losing further shots on the 12th, 13th and 16th holes. A word has to be said for the condition of Montenegro’s Titleist blades – exceptionally sparkly. He made good use of them too and it was great to see him shaping the ball both left and right. This course really isn’t just for the bombers – it’s one where strategy and shot-making will be to the fore.

Also in the first group was Mario Carmona of Mexico. He played very solidly to be round in two-under and is currently one off the lead.

The Favourites

There have been mixed fortunes for some of the LAAC pre-tournament favourites on the first morning.

Defending champion Toto Gana opened with an excellent 68 that included six birdies. The home player was enjoying great support out there and he can be very pleased with the start of his campaign to retain the title.

Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz battled well to record a two-under-par 69. Last year’s runner-up looked to be struggling with his game a little when I saw him but he was doing an excellent job of keeping it together. If he can shoot 69 playing a little way below his best, he must be one to watch this week. He certainly looks capable of going lower.

2015 winner Matias Dominguez of Chile struggled a little to an opening 74, the same score as Jose Luis Montano of Bolivia.

Biggest shock of the morning might have been the disappointing 78 carded by 2015 runner-up Alejandro Tosti of Argentina. He managed just one birdie against six bogeys and a double.

LAAC returns to Dominican Republic in 2019

2019 LAAC to Dominican Republic

2019 LAAC to Dominican Republic

The Latin America Amateur Championship will return to Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic for its fifth edition, which will be held January 17-20, 2019.

Casa de Campo played host to the tournament in 2016 when Paul Chaplet of Costa Rica was the champion. The competition will, once again, take place over Pete Dye’s magnificent Teeth of the Dog course.

“It gives us great pleasure to welcome the Latin America Amateur Championship back to our beautiful resort and country,” said Andres Pichardo Rosenberg, president of Casa de Campo. “This championship is a truly special event that is helping advance the game throughout our region and paving the way for Latin America’s future golf stars. We are honoured to play a role in supporting this mission as hosts and look forward to seeing the most talented amateur players once again rise to the challenges our course offers.”

The pipes are calling

I was very pleased after first feeling a little disoriented, to hear the bagpipes being played when I was out on course. I enjoyed a spot of Highland Cathedral as I wandered down the 17th. I was reliably informed by one of the members that it’s a frequent occurrence at the Prince of Wales CC as a group of pipers often practice nearby. Apparently some members complain as they say it distracts them from their games. I suggested they should, in fact, be inspired to hear music from the country of golf’s birth. They are quite noisy mind you.