Latin America Amateur Providing a Springboard to Wider Success
June 17, 2021 San Diego, Calif. By Ron Driscoll, USGA
2019 Latin America Amateur champion Alvaro Ortiz says his experience in the event has helped him as a professional and to prepare for his first U.S. Open. (Kohjiro Kinno/USGA)

Alvaro Ortiz of Mexico is competing in just his second major championship this week at Torrey Pines, two years after being edged by Viktor Hovland for low-amateur honors by one stroke in the 2019 Masters Tournament. You would think he doesn’t need to add any self-induced pressure as he tackles the daunting South Course.

Then Ortiz, 25, points out the wager he has made with his older sibling, Carlos, 30, a PGA Tour veteran who is competing in his third U.S. Open.

“We have a bet this week where the winner gets to pick the haircut that the other guy has to keep for two weeks,” said Alvaro. “We’ll see how it goes – he is playing on Tour for the two weeks after this, so hopefully the whole world will get to see what I come up with.”

Ortiz got an invitation to that 2019 Masters via his victory the previous January in the fifth Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC) on the Teeth of the Dog Course at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. The LAAC, founded by the Masters Foundation, the USGA and The R&A in 2015, offers the winner a berth in the Masters along with exemptions into The Open Championship and The Amateur Championship conducted by The R&A, and spots in U.S. Open final qualifying, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA amateur championships for which they are eligible.

Ortiz’s victory in 2019 capped his personal progression in the LAAC: he tied for third in the inaugural event behind Matias Dominguez of Chile, was disqualified in Year 2 after alerting officials that he had signed for an incorrect score, lost to Toto Gana in a playoff in Year 3, was runner-up to Joaquin Niemann in Year 4, then blitzed the closing nine holes with three birdies and an eagle to defeat Luis Gagne of Costa Rica by two strokes in his final start. Ortiz became the first player from Mexico to compete at Augusta National in 40 years.

Of the six LAAC winners, Joaquin Niemann, of Chile, has enjoyed the most success thus far. (Darren Carroll/USGA)

“The LAAC really helped me develop as a player and a person,” said Ortiz, who turned professional in 2019 and is currently No. 2 on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica points list, thanks in part to his victory in the Mexican Open in late March in Mazatlán, when he closed with a 9-under 63. “It takes some failure, some hard losses; I think all of those heartbreaks helped me develop mentally. I used to be a very emotional player; those moments helped me understand that the calmer you are, the better chance you have to succeed.”

The goal since the inception of the LAAC has been to increase awareness and inspire youngsters throughout the region’s 29 countries. That goal is being realized as evidenced by the six LAAC alumni in the 2021 U.S. Open field. Most prominent among them is Niemann, the 22-year-old Chilean who was a co-runner-up with Ortiz in that 2017 LAAC playoff before his stirring victory in 2018 with hundreds of hometown fans in Santiago rooting him on.

“It’s nice to see so many of us here,” said Niemann, who is in his third full season on the PGA Tour and sits at No. 31 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “We did great in the Latin America Amateur and now as professionals, we’re getting into these majors. It’s amazing how the game is growing.”

Niemann scarcely missed a beat when he turned professional, finishing sixth in his first start, the Valero Texas Open, then adding three more top-10 finishes to secure his PGA Tour card. He won his first Tour event in 2019 at The Greenbrier, and he earned a captain’s pick from Ernie Els as a member of the International Team for the 2020 Presidents Cup, where he hopes to be a fixture for many years.

“Every time I go back to Chile, I see more and more kids motivated to practice and get better,” said Niemann. “Obviously their dream is to play in the Latin America Amateur and win to get here.”

Also at Torrey Pines this week are 2019 LAAC runner-up Gagne; Mario Carmona, of Mexico; Sebastian Munoz, of Colombia; and Luis Fernando Barco, of Peru, who got into this championship by surviving a 10-for-1 playoff for the last of 10 available spots in final qualifying at Dallas Athletic Club. One of the nine players Barco defeated in the playoff was Jaime Lopez Rivarola, of Argentina, who like Niemann, competed in the first four LAACs, tying for third in 2018. Barco is the first player from Peru to compete in a U.S. Open.

“There’s a brotherhood among us, you could call it,” said Ortiz. “We’ve been competing since we were young, but at the end of the day, we all root for each other.”

After sharing low-amateur honors with Matt Parziale in the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, LSU graduate Gagne now competes with Ortiz on PGA Tour Latinoamerica. Gagne is playing in his third U.S. Open, having qualified at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter Hills, Fla., on June 7.

Yet another LAAC competitor made news on Sunday in the Korn Ferry Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am. Guillermo “Mito” Pereira, 26, of Chile, who played college golf at Texas Tech and tied for fifth in the inaugural LAAC, notched his third Korn Ferry Tour victory of the season to earn an in-season, three-victory promotion to the PGA Tour.

Latin American Players In 2021 U.S. Open
NAME COUNTRY U.S. OPEN STARTS
Abraham Ancer Mexico 3
Luis Fernando Barco Peru 1
Mario Carmona Mexico 1
Luis Gagne Costa Rica 2
Fabian Gomez Argentina 1
Sebastian Munoz Colombia 3
Joaquin Niemann Chile 3
Alvaro Ortiz Mexico 1
Carlos Ortiz Mexico 3
Jhonattan Vegas Venezuela 4

After his victory on Sunday, Pereira gave a shoutout to countryman Niemann, who took Pereira in at his Jupiter, Fla., home when the COVID-19 pandemic shut off international travel.

In 2014, Alvaro Ortiz’s brother Carlos earned a similar PGA Tour promotion with three wins on the then-Web.com Tour, so Alvaro realizes the importance of his accomplishment.

“Mito is such a story of perseverance,” said Ortiz. “He was on Korn Ferry, then back to Latinoamerica, then back up and down again. It’s just a matter of staying patient and [now] he’s going to play on Tour next week. It’s very inspiring to see him do it.”

Alvaro is equally inspired by his older brother, who played at the University of North Texas before pursuing a career that thus far includes one PGA Tour victory, the 2020 Vivent Houston Open.

“Most of the time, he’s the one pushing me, because he’s older,” said Alvaro. “Seeing all the work he has put in, all the sacrifice, he pretty much showed me the path to get here.”

When this week is over, as one brother sits in the chair, the other will get the chance to dictate the path of the barber’s razor.

Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of content for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.