He didn’t need a birdie on the 18th hole Sunday at Mexico’s Mayakoba Resort. Abel Gallegos was already three strokes ahead, victory at the Latin America Amateur Championship assured. But when the 6-foot-3 17-year-old, who could be mistaken for a football player rather than a golfer, rolled in the five-footer for a closing four-under 67, his friends and family charging the green afterward and dousing him with water in celebration, it provided a signature moment for a rising talent—and for his home country
Since the LAAC’s inception in 2015, no golfer from Argentina had won the title, a surprising result considering the country’s history in the game and the fact that more than half the courses in South America can be found there. Each subsequent year that the Argentineans returned from the event empty-handed, questions would surface as to why.
Gallegos put an end to all that with a four-under 280 performance for the week at El Cameleon Golf Club, beating local favorite Aaron Terrazas of Mexico by four and 54-hole leader Jose Vega of Colombia by five. On a day where the howling winds off the Yucatan coast finally subsided, Gallegos was able to use his raw power—his swing speed has been measured at close to 130 miles per hour—and athleticism to tie for the low round.
In turn, he secured the champion’s biggest spoils—an invitation to the Masters in April and the Open Championship in July.
“It’s incredible,” said Gallegos, who became the second youngest golfer to win the event. “I’m in like a dream.”
Gallegos’ victory was a testament to his composed play over the final 18 holes on Sunday—five birdies offset by one lone bogey. Still, it was made possible by his last two holes on Saturday. Hoping to finish his third round on a positive note while trailing Vega by five strokes, Gallegos made birdies on the 17th and 18th holes. Combined with a bogey on 18 from Vega, Gallegos was suddenly jut two strokes back and with a much more realistic chance to win.
“My goal was to have a chance on Sunday,” Gallegos said after the third round. “I think I fulfilled that, and now just to trust myself.”
That didn’t keep him from having a restless night’s sleep. Gallegos said he woke up several times contemplating what was at stake on Sunday. A wild drive off the first tee hinted at the pressure he was feeling, but he managed to salvage par and calm himself. Over the next six holes, he made three birdies to take the lead at three under for the tournament for the first time.
While Gallegos looked to be in good form, the same could not be said for Vega. A shaky back nine on Saturday for the 26-year-old TrackMan sales rep carried over to a first-hole bogey on Sunday. Vega turned in one over, but couldn’t put himself in position to make birdies and keep up with Gallegos, who stretched his lead to three strokes with a birdie on the 11th hole.
At 13, Vega finally did make another birdie to cut the deficit to two, but a wayward tee shot on the 14th hole into mango trees resulted in a double-bogey 6 that effectively ended his hopes of winning the title. He’d finish with a three-over 74.
Gallegos bogeyed the par-4 14th to fall back to three under, giving Terrazas hope as he made birdies on the 13th, 15th and 16th holes to get within three and jump Vera on the leader board. But it was too little, too late, Terrazas finishing with a 67.
This was the first time Gallegos had competed in the LAAC, making him the first rookie to win the title since the inaugural playing in 2015. Sitting 460th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, Gallegos had won the Argentinian junior title in 2019, but hadn’t played much outside of his home country. In the last year, he finished tied for sixth at last week’s Junior Orange Bowl in Florida and T-48 at the AJGA’s Junior Players at TPC Sawgrass.
His game, honed on a nine-hole course, Las Mulitas, in his home town of Veinticinco De Mayo, could perhaps use some seasoning that might come from playing college golf in the United States, but Gallegos has already said that’s not for him. His intent is to turn professional at some point (“when I'm ready mentally”) but not before the end of the summer in order to take advantage of the perks for winning the LAAC.
After the round, one of the Argentina's most famous golfers, two-time major winner Angel Cabrera, sent a message to Gallegos offered his congratulations and added, “I will be waiting for you at the Masters so you can enjoy that great tournament.”
“It’s an incredible moment,” Gallegos said. “I dedicate the win for all of Argentina.”
Indeed, his win will likely provide a jolt to the rest of Argentina’s top amateurs, as will seeing him become only the third amateur from the country to compete at the Masters. And that was the intent all along from the tournament’s founding partners, the Masters, the USGA and the R&A, that the Latin America Amateur Championship provide inspiration to the next generation of golfers in the region. With each replay of Gallegos’ closing birdie—the signature moment of the 2020 LAAC, the message will be delivered once more.