Latin America AmateurJanuary 16, 2019

At the Latin America Amateur, players try (mostly in vain) to forget an invite to the Masters is on the line

Luis Gagne
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesLuis Gagne of Costa Rica plays his shot from the sixth tee during the third round of the 2018 U.S. Open

LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic — Ask most of the golfers in the 108-player field at the Latin America Amateur Championship and they’ll admit they already have plans of some sort in place for the second week in April. School, college golf tournaments, work obligations lead the lists. However, should fate intervene this week on Pete Dye’s Teeth of the Dog course at Casa de Campo Resort, it’s safe to say nobody has anything so important they wouldn’t re-schedule if it meant taking a trip to Georgia instead.

Indeed, to the winner on Sunday goes the spoils, including exemptions into the British and U.S. Amateurs, and into final or sectional qualifying for the British and U.S. Opens. More immediately, though, comes a coveted invitation to play at the Masters in less than three months.

No doubt, the opportunity to compete at Augusta National is buried in the corners of every players’ minds. The trick is to not let it surface much further, lest it get in the way of the task at hand.

“If anyone in the field tells you they’re not thinking about it, they’re obviously lying,” said Costa Rica’s Luis Gagne, a senior at LSU who earned a share of low amateur honors at the U.S. Open last June at Shinnecock Hills. “I think personally, when you’re playing out there, these next four rounds, you can’t dwell on it, and you know, if you make a double, you can’t be like, 'oh, my Masters hopes are gone.’ Of course, it’s nice. It a great exemption, obviously, but the main goal is just to stick to your game plan ”

Yeah, good luck with that.

It’s not just the chance to play at the Masters, but the spring board it can provide that is so rewarding. Consider last year’s LAAC winner, Joaquin Niemann. Despite missing the cut at Augusta National, the 19-year-old native of Chile came away with the confidence that he was ready to compete at the next level. He turned pro shortly afterward, and cobbled together enough FedEx Cup points in the handful of events he received on sponsor’s exemptions to earn a full PGA Tour card for 2019.

But first things first.

“It’s going to be a fun week, however, I play,” said Juan Jose Guerra. The 21-year-old, a senior at Division II Nova Southeastern in Florida, is the highest ranked player from the Dominican Republic competing this week at No. 242. With that comes a little extra scrutiny. “Yeah, you get a lot of people rooting for you and a lot of people text, and wish you good luck,” Guerra said. “At the end of the day, it’s [still just] golf.”

Guerra competed in the LAAC, run jointly by the Masters, USGA and R&A, when it was also played at the Teeth of the Dog course in 2016, finishing T-22. That year the event was won by Costa Rica’s Paul Chaplet, a 16-year-old ranked No. 832 in the world who came from nowhere to win and became the first person from his country to ever play in the Masters.

Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Juan Jose Guerra of the Dominican Republic practices at Casa de Campo Resort ahead of the 2019 Latin America Amateur Championship.

Chaplet has good memories of his victory, where he hung on as the seaside course took the brunt of some vicious winds during the final round (this year they’ve flipped nines so that the tournament will end on a par 5 that could produce even more drama). He’s also mature enough to admit that winning at such a young age and going shortly thereafter to Augusta might have been a little too much too soon for his game. He missed the cut Masters after rounds of 83-82 and it took him a little while to regain his confidence.

Three years removed, and now playing college golf at Arizona State, Chaplet plays down the possibility that he might have an edge on the field given his prior victory here.

“I don’t think it takes any pressure off,” Chaplet said. “It’s not like it gets any easier because you won here. I have a lot of respect for the players here. It’s not easy to just go out and say I’ll win and win.”

With defending champion Niemann off on the PGA Tour, the fifth edition of the LAAC lacks a clear favorite. The other three past champions (Matias Dominguez in 2015, Chaplet and Toto Gana in 2017) are in the field, which has just four players from the top 100 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking competing; No. 24 Luis Fernando Barco of Peru being the top ranked.

“It’s wide open,” said Dominguez, the inaugural LAAC champ. “There are probably 10 guys who can win.”

“There’s no better player here,” Guerra said. “It’s just one of us is going to have a great week and get the trophy, and obviously I’m trying to be that guy at the end of the week.”

And in turn be the guy who has to change his plans come April.

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