LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic — There was never a question whether Alvaro Ortiz had the game to win the Latin America Amateur Championship. Not physically at least. Three top-three finishes in four previous starts proved he could hang with the best players from the region.
But could the 23-year-old from Mexico compose himself mentally in order to finally lift the trophy and enjoy all that comes with the LAAC title, in particular an invitation to the Masters? Since he began to play the game competitively back at Guadalajara Country Club as a 6-year-old, the youngest of Carlos and Chela Ortiz’s three sons had shown a penchant for running a little, how should you say it, caliente on the course.
“It’s been a blessing at times, but also a curse,” said Carlos, while walking and watching his son earlier in the week. “He knows his emotions can sometimes get the best of him, his coaches know it, we all know it. And he’s worked hard to try to keep his focus and his patience.”
Both were tested again on Sunday at Casa de Campo, where Ortiz lost a one-stroke overnight lead halfway through the final round on Pete Dye’s picturesque Teeth of the Dog course and began to wonder if his fifth and final attempt to win the LAAC was going to end in more disappointment.
But then he recalled the text he got earlier in the morning from his longtime swing coach, Justin Poynter, which included a simple refrain: “Be your best friend today.” And with that, the former college standout at Arkansas who wrapped up his college career last May calmed himself down and proceeded to shoot a back-nine 31—capped with birdies on the final two holes—to finish with a six-under 66 and a two-stroke victory over Costa Rica’s Luis Gagne.
In the process, Ortiz avenged his previous LAAC stumbles, most recently last year in Chile when he took a one-stroke lead into the final round, shot a closing 69 and watched Joaquin Niemann pass him with a closing 63. And there was also the playoff loss to Toto Gana in Panama in 2017.
“You can learn through the tough times, more than anything,” Ortiz said. “Those moments … you start looking back, especially a couple years after when you start realizing that showing your emotions really affects you and you have to really be calm and have that mental peace on each shot to do your best.”
Ortiz was determined not to let that happen on Sunday, even as Gagne was doing his best to frustrate him. Two strokes back of Ortiz to start the day and playing one group ahead of the leader, Gagne, a 21-year-old senior at LSU, made four birdies on his first nine to jump out front. Having played in last year’s U.S. Open, where he shared low amateur honors, he continued to stay aggressive as he made the turn, carding birdies on the 11th and 14th holes to stretch his advantage for a short time to two strokes.
Hearing the excitement from the crowd ahead, Ortiz knew he needed to respond. And he did, first with a clutch par-saving putt on the ninth hole to keep from falling further behind. Then he hit the green in two on the par-5 12th (a 3-wood from 235 yards) and rolled in the 20-foot eagle putt before following it up with a birdie on the par-4 13th. With that, he once again had a share of the lead at 12 under.
As the remaining players fell away—Peru’s Luis Fernando Barco finished alone in third, but five shots off the pace—it was Gagne who faltered down the stretch. On the drivable par-4 17th, he chose to lay up with a 6-iron he thought would avoid a fairway bunker. Only he overcooked the tee shot, his ball landing in the sand anyway. When his approach shot went over the green and he failed to get up and down to save par, Gagne figured he was in trouble, despite making a birdie on the short par-5 18th to give him a closing 66.
Gagne was right. A birdie on 17 from Ortiz gave him a cushion playing the home hole. He proceeded to hit the fairway and green, and two-putted for his final birdie and a 14-under 274 overall, setting the LAAC's 72-hole scoring record.
Ortiz’s week got off to a shaky start. His flight on Monday to the Dominican was canceled due to mechanical issues, and he missed a connection on Tuesday that kept him from getting to Casa de Campo until the evening. It turned out to be a good thing, as it kept Ortiz from overdoing it in practice rounds and wearing himself out.
Meanwhile, his preparation on Saturday night didn’t go smoothly, either. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I was waking up like every two hours. I had awful nightmares.”
“I even dreamed a friend died.”
Thankfully, Ortiz shook away that vision, leaning instead on happier memories from his recent past. Last month during Christmas, he and his family took a vacation to Puerto Vallarta. It turned into a training camp of sorts for Alvaro and his older brother, Carlos Jr., who plays on the PGA Tour. The siblings took to the golf course for eight straight days, Alvaro sharpening his game for his last run at the LAAC before then playing in PGA Tour Latinoamerica Q school, and Carlos prepping for his 2019 season on tour.
“It was a great time for us both. We felt like kids again,” said Alvaro, whose plans to turn pro will wait until after playing at Augusta National in April.
He’ll no doubt feel that way too in a few months, when he becomes the first Mexican to compete at the Masters since Victor Regalado in 1979. Ortiz has never been to Augusta before, and the anticipation for the tournament was already bubbling on Sunday.
“I can’t wait,” he said.
Neither can his father. Having seen the transformation in his son, Carlos Sr. struggled to find the words for what Sunday’s finished meant.
“I’m just proud of him,” he said. “I’m proud of how he’s grown up. It’s all you could hope for.”