Chile’s Toto Gana came through a three-man playoff featuring his countryman and close friend Joaquin Niemann and Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz to win the third Latin America Amateur Championship in Panama and earn an invitation to this April’s U.S. Masters.
Toto Gana, Joaquin Niemann and Alvaro Ortiz finished 72-holes tied on one-under-par at Club de Golf de Panama meaning a sudden-death playoff was required to settle the third Latin America Amateur Championship.
On the first extra hole, the 18th at Club de Golf de Panama, Gana pulled his drive into the trees, Ortiz’s ball found a divot on the fairway and Niemann’s outran the fairway coming to rest just outside of a water hazard. All three walked off with par though and the playoff moved onto the 10th.
Niemann pulled his approach shot on 10 into a plugged lie in the greenside bunker, Ortiz flew his ball onto the green, long and right of the flag then Gana fired in a wedge shot from 100 yards to within a few feet of the pin. Neither Niemann nor Ortiz were able to hole out and that left Gana with a short putt for the title. He calmly rolled it home to become the third LAAC champion, the second from Chile following Matias Dominguez’s victory in 2015. With the win Gana has earned a place in this year’s U.S. Masters.
“This is a new experience for me, I’ve never felt like this before and I never want it to end,” he said. “I have to keep doing what I’m doing and get ready for Augusta. I can’t quite believe it.”
As winner of the tournament Gana receives, in addition to 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, he, Ortiz and Niemann receive exemptions into Open Qualifying Series – Final Qualifying with an opportunity to earn a place in The 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, plus an exemption into final stage qualifying for the U.S. Open with an opportunity to earn a place in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Gana and Ortiz began the final round at Club de Golf de Panama tied for the lead, one ahead of Gana’s countryman and friend Joaquin Niemann. The three played together in the final group during regulation play and, by the start of the final nine holes, they were locked on one-under-par.
After flying the 14th green by some 40 yards, Alvaro Ortiz was unable to get up-and-down and made a bogey. He seemingly bounced back at the driveable 15th, playing a superb shot to the heart of the green. He looked sure to make a birdie, but he lipped out from short range. He would later rue that miss but he remained positive overall after the round.
“I’m happy with my game. I gave myself a chance and I’m excited for the future,” he said. “I have learned a lot from this tournament and I learned from my fellow competitors. It’s hard to explain how much I enjoyed it out there. Yes, I would have like to have won but I’m just so happy with how the round went.”
Gana was able to pick up a shot at the 15th after a superb bunker shot, but Niemann stumbled to a disappointing bogey. That left Gana two shots clear with three holes to play.
The young Chilean looked visibly nervous on the 16th fairway as he played a very poor iron shot into the right hand bunker. But he composed himself to play a good splash shot and hole a great putt to save par. Niemann had a good chance to close the gap on the 16th but he missed from eight feet.
Niemann then played a great iron shot on the 17th hole to within just a few feet of the cup. Alvaro Ortiz played to the heart of the green and holed a difficult putt from 20 feet to get back to one-under-par. Niemann followed Ortiz in leaving Gana to try and hole out for his par. He did so, his third clutch putt in as many holes, to take a one-stroke lead to the 18th tee.
On the 72nd, Gana’s drive found sand while Niemann and Ortiz fired onto the fairway. Gana’s approach went through the green and he was unable to get up-and-down to save par. Both other men managed it and that meant all three finished on one-under. Niemann had a birdie putt on the final hole that would have given him the victory but it narrowly missed. The youngster was delighted for his friend Toto.
“He has worked so hard and I am so happy for him,” he said. “Now I look forward to next year and being able to get my revenge!”
Alvaro E. Ortiz, the oldest player to make the cut at the age of 48, posted a fine final round of 70. The Costa Rican had led through 36 holes and he finished the tournament at level par in a tie for fourth place, just one off the playoff.
At the other end of the player age spectrum, youngest entrant Julian Perico of Peru shared that tie for fourth with Ortiz. Perico led after the first round and pushed hard through the final round to also post a four-round score of level par. The 17-year-old fired a LAAC record 64 in the opening round and he closed with an excellent 69.
Tomas “Toto” Gana comes from the Chilean capital Santiago – host city for next year’s Latin America Amateur Championship. The fourth instalment of the tournament will be held at Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago, Chile from the 18th to 21st of January 2018.
Latin America Amateur Championship – Final Leaderboard
1 Toto Gana (Chi) 279
T2 Joaquin Niemann (Chi) 279
T2 Alvaro Ortiz (Mex) 279
T4 Julian Perico (Per) 280
T4 Alvaro E. Ortiz (CRC) 280
T6 Jose Luis Montano (Bol) 283
T6 Raul Pereda (Mex) 283
T8 Miguel Ordonez (Pan) 284
T8 Nicolas Echavarria (Col) 284
T8 Andres Gallegos (Arg) 284