Two days is as far into the future as Jose Vega is willing to contemplate at this point. The 26-year-old from Colombia knows, regardless of the outcome on Sunday at the Latin America Amateur Championship, he is headed to the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando for a Monday morning meeting, part of his job as a regional director of sales for TrackMan.
As for his plans in April or July, well, Vega isn’t about to get that much ahead of himself just yet.
OK, then, we’ll do it for him. With a two-stroke lead and one round to play at Mayakoba Resort in Mexico, Vega is 18 holes away from a LAAC victory that comes with invitations to this year’s Masters and Open Championship. It’s heady stuff for someone whose tournament golf in the five months prior to the championship has consisted of one start in a World Amateur Golf Ranking event, last week’s South America Amateur, in which he finished T-23.
On Saturday, Vega worked his way methodically around El Cameleon Golf Club, making two birdies and three bogeys as he shot a one-over 72 to remain, a two-under 211, the only competitor in red figures for the tournament. His third-round performance might not sound like much, but with the gusty winds that continued to make for treacherous play, Vega’s score was the fourth lowest of the day even with a disappointing bogey on the 18th that prevented him from keeping the three-stroke lead he had to start the day.
Whether it was the difficult conditions or the self-awareness that the tournament was getting near crunch time, Vega’s ball-striking felt a bit off on the back nine, even as his lead increased to five strokes at one point. Yet Vega, trying to become the oldest LAAC winning in its six years, avoided any disastrous holes, making a handful of par saves that proved difference makers.
After driving into a grove of trees on the par-4 11th, his ball resting in an uncomfortable spot between roots and rocks, Vega deftly punched out to the fairway, hit his third shot to two feet and made the par.
"I think it's one of the best pars I've ever made in my life," Vega said, sho said he was just trying to put himself "myself back in place and put the ball back in place and try to make bogey."
On the par-4 12th, another errant drive led to a testy five-footer for par that he holed. On the par-4 14th, Vegas missed the green with his approach and hit a poor chip from a gnarly lie, leaving him 12 feet for par. From the moment the ball was off his putter face, however, he knew he’d made it.
If Vega wasn’t going to fall back, somebody had to step up. Enter Gallegos, a 6-foot-3 17-year-old with a stocky frame playing in his first LAAC. It looked like this might be the round that put him out of contention when he made a bogey on the par-5 13th and par-4 16th, but birdies on the 17th and 18th allowed him to finish with the day’s best round, a one-under 70, and play his way into the final threesome.
Gallegos comes from Veinticinco De Mayo, a small town near Buenos Aires with only a nine-hole course and a hunger more for soccer than golf. But he thinks they’ll be tuning in on Sunday to see if he can become the first Argentine to win the LAAC title.
"My goal was to have a chance on Sunday," Gallegos said. "I think I fulfilled that, and now just to trust myself."
Joining Vega and Gallegos in the final pairing is Ivan Camilo Ramirez, a fellow Colombian who was the leader after Day 1 but is five back at three over for the tournament. Having the familiar face in Ramirez might serve as an advantage for Vega.
Also five back is Chile’s Gabriel Morgan Birke, the highest ranked player in the field at No. 53. He’ll play with Mexico’s Aaron Terrazas (four over) and Chile’s Lukas Roessler (five over) in the penultimate threesome.
With the winds expected to blow once more on Sunday, and the pressure of what’s at stake becoming greater, any of the five chasers has a legitimate shot.
"It's fairly simple I think that I have nothing to lose here," Vega said. "When I step up on the next tee tomorrow morning on the first tee, it's going to be a grind. The best one, the one that's going to take the trophy home, is the one that makes less mistakes, and the one that carries himself with the head up. That's the one that's going to win tomorrow."