LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic — They’re not sleeping in their own beds, but for the nine golfers from the Dominican Republic, the fact that the Latin America Amateur Championship is being played at Casa de Campo makes this, in most every other way, a home game. And a welcome one at that.
Enrique Valverde estimates he’s played Teeth of the Dog “probably 75 times in the last year,” an impressive number considering the 19-year-old spent much of the last year in the United States at Wilmington University, where he’s a sophomore and plays for the men’s golf team.
Yet it showed. Valverde, whose home in the Dominican is 65 miles away in the nation’s capital of Santo Domingo, has shot rounds of 70-71 to put him on the leader board into a tie for sixth place mid-way through Friday’s second round.
The man he’s chasing after 36 holes? His friend and countryman Juan Cayro Delgado, a 17-year-old who shot a second-round 68 on Friday after an opening 69 to grab the 36-lead at seven under par.
Delgado says he first played the Teeth of the Dog when he was 10, and two years ago he won the National Youth Championship when it was held on the course. It’s safe to say he has confidence on the famed Pete Dye design.
After making the turn in one under on Friday morning, Delagado birdied three of his final seven holes. “I was hitting the ball well and feeling great with my putter,” he said. “I just wanted to continue to do what I was doing and making as many birdies as I could.”
While this was going on, the gallery following him grew with each passing hole. By the end of the round, roughly four dozen spectators were dodging sprinkles to cheer as he closed things out.
To be leading this international event—Day 1 leader Alvaro Ortiz of Mexico shot a even-par 72 to finish one stroke off Delgado’s pace along with Peru’s Luis Fernando Barco—is pretty heady stuff for the junior golfer set to play college golf in the U.S. at UCF next fall. He is 1,455th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, playing in the LAAC for the first time and, by his own admission, aware he was not among the favorites entering the week. But with a cheering section rooting him on, Delgado believes the good vibes that he and his teammates are receiving this week are an advantage they have on the rest field.
“People are supporting me, and at the end of the day that makes me feel better,” Delgado said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think there is much pressure for me playing in my home country.”
Of course, there is a possible downside to the attention: heightened expectations. That’s where Francisco Bordas comes in. The director of the Dominican Golf Federation is well aware that being the host country can be a blessing but also a curse. And he’s worked to try to keep it more the former.
“There’s a pressure … when you carry the flag of your country, it’s tough,” Bordas said. “You feel proud that you are representing your country and they want to get the best for their country. We talk every single day, every single night, how to handle the pressure and do the best you can do.”
Whatever he’s saying is rubbing off. Besides Delgado and Valverde, 21-year-old Juan Jose Guerra, the country’s top-ranked player at No. 242 in the world, sits inside the top 25 after two rounds and safely advanced to the weekend. Meanwhile, 29-year-old Rhadames Pena just missed cut.
Valverde has competed in the LAAC the past two years (missing the cut both times) after watching as a spectator in 2016, when it first played at Casa de Campo. That experience served as motivation to make sure he was eventually standing inside the ropes.
“I was hearing stories and I was like, Damn, I want to be here,” Valverde said. “It was fun watching them, but it’s better to be playing here.”
It’s no small advantage to have some local knowledge at Teeth of the Dog, a course ranked No. 27 in Golf Digest’s World 100 Greatest Courses. Valverde says it’s not so much knowing where to play certain shots, but rather how to work your way around the course.
“You don’t need to know [the course] to shoot a good score. You have to be focused on the whole round,” Valverde said. “It’s a really tough course. You have to be focused the whole time.”
Arguably the biggest advantage the locals might have is knowing how to play the seaside course in the wind, which has yet to truly become a factor. If it were to pick up in the coming days, however, the home-course edge could really surface.
Bordas is quick, though, not to look too far ahead. And that will be the main point he tries to emphasis with his team when it gathers for dinner on Friday night. The cliché translates well from English and Spanish: You’ve got to take it one shot at a time, he insists. And try not to think about the fact that no Dominican golfer has ever competed in the Masters, one of the rewards for victory at the LAAC.
Still, even Bordas can’t help but briefly dream about the potential impact having any of his charges finishing well might have for golf in the country.
“Having the LAAC here in 2016 opened a new frontier,” Bordas said. “We not get to play in other events around the region, Mexico, South America, Puerto Rico. We are playing many more tournaments. We’re seeing real growth here.”
And to do it in front of the home crowd? Well, how can you write a better story than that.