The fourth instalment of the Latin America Amateur Championship takes place this week at the Prince of Wales CC in Santiago, Chile. The winner will play in the 2018 Masters.
Today is the final practice day for the fourth Latin America Amateur Championship to be contested at the Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago, Chile. Hosted by The Masters Tournament, the R&A and the USGA, this has become the most prestigious amateur event in Latin America and it welcomes many of the finest players from South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.
With the winner set to receive an invitation to play in the 2018 Masters plus exemptions for R&A and USGA events, the stakes are high as the competitors complete their final preparations.
I’ve travelled to Chile to watch the action and to keep you up to date with proceedings. Here below is a preview of what’s to come this week:
What’s on offer?
The prestige of this event has grown steadily since the first instalment in Buenos Aires in 2015. The players and the national federations involved are highly focused and determined to produce the best possible results. These guys, although having a great time and laughing and joking with one another and enjoying the friendly atmosphere, have their eyes set firmly on the prize.
Aside from being the best amateur player in Latin America for the year, the winner of the tournament receives: an invitation to compete in The Masters Tournament; an exemption into The Amateur Championship, an exemption into the U.S. Amateur Championship and any other USGA amateur championship for which he is eligible.
In addition, the champion and runner(s)-up receive exemptions into the final stages of qualifiying for The Open Championship with an opportunity to earn a place in The 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie, plus an exemption into final stage qualifying for the U.S. Open with an opportunity to earn a place in the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
Par 71, 6,864 yards
The host course for this year’s event is at the Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago. The club dates from 1925 and the course from 1930. It was designed by club member Alex MacDonald, who was a British businessman and a golf course architect. With a par of 72 and measuring 6,864-yards, it’s not overly long but with narrow fairways it demands accuracy. The bentgrass greens feature subtle contours and slopes that should test the players’ skill and nerve.
I went out for a walk around the course today to get a feel for the layout. As the players I’d spoken to had expressed – it’s in immaculate condition with the greens in particular appearing to be super smooth and slick. The ground looks fairly firm and I saw a number of drives bounding on and more than a couple of shots from the rough being landed short and releasing up to the putting surface. I think this week there will be quite an emphasis on creativity around the putting surfaces, the flop shot will not be the go to and I expect a few more links-style bump and run shots to be played – good practice for those aiming to make it to The Amateur Championship or maybe even The Open.
I’d also say, it’s quite tight with mature trees lining the fairways. Although there is space between those trees, the size of them means that straying off line will either mean a pitch back to the short stuff or a high-risk escape shot. I witnessed a couple of players attempting high tariff recoveries and both times the result was a knock on wood and then a pitch out – I think accuracy will indeed be very important this week and patience too. If a player strays, they’ll need to possess the fortitude to take their medicine and move on.
The three par-5s should all be reachable in two for the longer hitters so these could be key to scoring. The general feeling is that there are low scores to be had out there. Although Julian Perico of Peru put things in perspective when he talked about his opening round of 64 last year in Panama.
“Yes it’s fun when you play like that and many of the guys this week are capable of going low,” he said. “The winning score could be 12-under but last year we thought that too and then the winner finished on one-under. It’s different when the pressure starts to build. The logos on the board (The Masters, The R&A and The USGA) really make you think.”
Set in the heart of Santiago – a vibrant city home to some 7,000,000 people – the course is relatively compact which makes it great for spectating. Wherever you position yourself, you can see action taking place on more than one hole. But the trees mean that each of those hole is protected from the others. It’s a rather beautiful place to be out there, under the trees beside the sweeping fairways, looking up to the towering mountains. The highest are snow-capped all year and they look absolutely massive. That might be because they are. The highest – Cerro El Plomo rises to almost 5,500 metres… That’s four times higher than Ben Nevis!
Players to Watch
A number of players who have enjoyed success in the first three Latin America Amateur Championships will return this year, including the first three winners – Matias Dominguez of Chile, Paul Chaplet of Costa Rica and Tomas Gana of Chile. Who might be lifting the trophy at the end of the week and be looking forward to a trip to Augusta?
Joaquin Niemann (Chile)
The World’s Number 1 ranked Amateur will be the favourite this week and he will shoulder the expectation of the home fans. He was tied second in Panama last year and went on to qualify for the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. He will hope to go one better this time out.
“I’ve had the advantage of being able to practice on this course for a month before the event,” he said. “I’m not feeling the pressure actually, I feel more relaxed. I’m staying at home, I have my people around me and that is great.”
This will potentially be Niemann’s last outing as an amateur. If he doesn’t win the event he will turn professional immediately. If he does, he’ll stay amateur in order to play in The Masters.
“I’m excited for both possibilities,” he said.
Alejandro Tosti (Argentina)
One of the most consistent performers in this event over the first three years, Tosti was second in 2015, tied third in 2016 and tied 12th last year. A senior at Florida State, the Argentine has the complete game and he possesses explosive power.
Jorge Garcia (Venezuela)
Runner-up in 2016, Garcia is another player who looks to have the game to prevail in this event and he has the experience of three previous starts to draw upon.
Alvaro Ortiz (Mexico)
Also having played in all three events, Alvaro Ortiz (brother of PGA Tour player Carlos) has a great record in the LAAC. He was tied 3rd in 2015 and tied second last year. He has a great attitude and a level head and will likely feature again.
2015 – Matias Dominguez (Chile)
2016 – Paul Chaplet (Costa Rica)
2017 – Tomas Gana (Chile)
Prince of Wales Country Club
Founded in 1925, this is a fabulous, traditional sporting club with tremendous character and history. There’s real British influence here with the clubhouse walls displaying wartime posters and even a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill. There are rugby playing caricatures of old members on the wood panelled walls in the bar and, in general, you get the feeling you’ve stepped back in time to a more civilised age. But it’s clearly not a stuffy old men’s club. There are plenty of families here with children enjoying swimming and games, there are teenagers playing tennis, rugby and football and everyone seems to be simply enjoying the place and the great facilities on offer.
It’s pretty spectacular – clear skies, 30 degrees C and just the occasional cool breeze. I was worried I’d be too hot, travelling from the frozen north east of Scotland but the heat is very dry so it just feels rather pleasant. I’m not sure I’d fancy joining in one of the football matches taking place on the pitches adjacent to the course, but strolling round watching the golf, it’s very nice indeed. And, it looks set to continue for the duration. A taxi driver told me yesterday that it tends to be very dry here at this time of year. It won’t rain, pretty much at all, until April when it will chuck it down. A good time to visit then!
Putting golf in perspective
Yesterday in the media centre Erik Morales of Puerto Rico spoke eloquently about how life has changed and priorities have shifted since Hurricane Maria ripped through his home country in 2017.
“Instead of golfing and keeping up the normal life, we started focusing more on what we can do for the country. We were out there trying to find donations from people and to help those who really needed it,” he said. “It puts your feet on the ground when you go into the interior of the island and see people who are really going through hard times. I can go out and play golf and shoot 65 or 95 and I will be the same at the end. I’ve learned to be grateful for more things…”
“I remember an old lady we stopped to help. She looked scared and I asked if she was ok, if she had water. She said she did but I knew she was taking it from somewhere the water was unsafe. I gave her a couple of bottles of water and she just collapsed crying. I hugged her and could just feel that desperation and energy. I have goose bumps thinking about it. I just know now there’s so much more than the material stuff. I’ve seen people getting through this with a smile. I’ve seen kids out playing, riding bikes – With no power it’s like it used to be before the internet, before iPads. So within all the bad stuff, there is also light.”
Erik has barely been able to play since Maria put paid to all golf on Puerto Rico but he has played a warm-up tournament in Argentina.
“Whether I’m making birdies or bogeys, I’m just going to enjoy it,” he said philosophically.
I also met with Kevin O’Connell of the Virgin Islands who showed me a video of his house, or what was left of it, after it was destroyed by the ferocious winds.
“It’s devastation,” he said. “You won’t find a single person on the islands who hasn’t been affected by this. It’s like starting from scratch and we just have to get on with it.”
Someone else who has faced challenges in his home country in recent months and years is Ernesto Martinez of Venezuela. With the social and political troubles the county has been facing, one might think golf would take a back seat, but it’s not the case as Ernesto explained.
“Yes, things are more complicated for us in Venezuela,” he said. “But actually there is more time for golf as there is so little work. It’s difficult but we make the best of it. But to come and play here and to see a golf course prepared like this – it’s like a miracle. In Venezuela we have no money at the golf course, we don’t have equipment and we don’t have machines so maintenance is hard. We are outdated and that is a disadvantage. But, it’s just about shooting the lowest score possible isn’t it and we (the Venezuelan players) have a chance this week.”
Ernesto has been recovering from an injury sustained to his elbow but is confident he will be able to produce his best game this week. After a little pressure he explained how he sustained the injury.
“Last year, we were protesting against the government and the police tried to control us,” he said. “They came close and I was struck on the elbow. I have to be grateful as, first of all, I’m alive and secondly that I can keep on playing golf – that was a big concern.”
The stories of these players have put golf in perspective for me too. All these guys are determined to perform to the best of their abilities this week but, more importantly, to enjoy themselves. I for one, will be rooting for them.