With a spot in the Masters on the line, Toto Gana saw a two-stroke lead with two holes to play in the Latin America Amateur Championship slip away. Yet the 19-year-old native of Chile didn’t panic, hitting his approach on the second sudden-death playoff hole at Club de Golf de Panama to two feet and converting the birdie putt to claim the title and earn an invitation to Augusta National this April.
Gana defeated countryman and best friend Joaquin Niemann and Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz after shooting a final-round 71 at the Panama City course that also hosts a Web.com Tour event. That included a bogey on the 72nd hole after Gana hit his drive in a fairway bunker and couldn’t get up and down for par from behind the green. Niemann and Ortiz, both having made birdies on the 17th hole to cut Gana’s lead to one, each made pars on the 18th to qualify for the playoff. Niemann shot a Sunday 70; Ortiz, who shared the lead with Gana entering the day, closed with a 71.
The trio returned to the 18th, with all three making pars on the first playoff hole. They then went to the par-4 10th hole. Niemann found the fairway off the tee but pulled his approach into a greenside bunker. Ortiz’s drive was in the rough and his second hit the green but left him a 40-plus foot putt for birdie. When neither converted, Gana made his short birdie effort to seal the victory.
“I can’t believe it,” Gana said. “Two days ago I was nobody. Now I can’t wait to play the Masters.
Indeed, Gana wasn’t highly acclaimed entering the tournament. He ranked No. 285 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. This spring he will be heading to Division II Lynn University to play college golf.
Conversely, Niemann was ranked No. 5 in the World, the highest ranked player in the field, having reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur last August and earned first-team AJGA All-American honors in 2016. Ortiz, a collegiate player at Arkansas, finished third in the inaugural playing of the Latin America Amateur in 2015.
But it was Gana’s time to shine.