Mexico's Santiago de la Fuente teed his ball up on the first hole at the Santa Maria Golf Club in Panama City on Sunday with a chance to shoot his 12th straight round of par or better at the Latin America Amateur Championship, dating back to 2022, but he knew it would take something special to reach the goal he really coveted: The championship that would not only be a proud victory for himself, his country and his school—he's a senior at the University of Houston—but would earn him an eye-popping slew of exemptions, including the Masters, Open Championship and U.S. Open, plus the two biggest amateur championships in the world. Nobody knew better than de la Fuente what it meant to get close; in 2022, he had a short putt on the 18th hole to tie eventual champion Aaron Jarvis. He missed it, and a year later he notched another top-10 finish. Now, in Panama, he was alone in second, but the player in front of him, countryman Omar Morales, led by three shots and had just carded a tournament-best 65 on Saturday.
No matter—this was de la Fuente's day. He did Morales one better, shooting a spectacular 64—including a birdie-birdie finish—to clinch the title and all its rewards. Later on Sunday, the eyes of the world may have been on another amateur, 20-year-old Nick Dunlap as he claimed the title at the PGA Tour's American Express, but it's hard to imagine anyone playing more clutch golf under the gun than de la Fuente.
"I don't think there has been any better moment in my life so far," he said when it was all over. "The work I've done to get ready for this week after what happened in the DR [Dominican Republic], and just grinding and trying to visualize myself winning this event ... and right now I can say I did it."
At the start of the day, de la Fuente was the only player with a realistic chance of catching Morales, at least barring a major collapse from the leader. He didn't collapse, but it was clear quickly that his scintillating form from a day earlier had faded. Morales made bogey on the par-5 second, and de la Fuente's birdie on that hole closed the gap immediately to one shot. Morales recovered to play the rest of the front at two under, but de la Fuente was with him every step of the way, and still trailed by just a shot at the turn. A birdie on 11 for de la Fuente knotted the two players at eight under for the tournament, and a stretch of four straight pars led to 16. There, both missed the green on the approach, but both made clutch up-and-downs to save par.
All of which led to 17, where de la Fuente hit his shot of the day, sticking his tee shot on the par 3 inside two feet. Morales gave his 25-footer plenty of oomph, but the ball missed the hole and the best he could do was sink a tricky five-footer to save par. De la Fuente made his easy birdie, and now had his first lead of the day heading into 18. A helping wind roared at their back on the finishing hole, and de la Fuente set the tone with a spectacular drive that carried more than 300 yards, setting him up just 140 yards from the hole. Morales followed with a 3-wood onto the fairway, about 30 yards back, but his approach gave him a 15-foot look for birdie. De la Fuente pitched in to hole high, leaving about 10 feet for his own birdie, and watched as Morales attempted to tie the tournament with a final birdie. The putt was on line, but never had enough speed, and Morales covered his eyes with his hand as he rued the missed chance. That meant de la Fuente needed just a simple two-putt to clinch the title, and he did it in one—a final birdie to reach 10 under.
Prior to that moment, his gaze had been steely eyed as he paced the fairways, something like a scowl on his lips as he chased down the trophy. But after he made the putt, he fell back on his haunches as his caddie embraced him, shoulders shaking, and sobbed into the crook of his elbow.
Colombia's Mateo Fuenmayor saved par a moment later to clinch solo third place, one of his country's best finishes ever at the event, while Justin Hastings of the Cayman Islands—home of 2022 champion Jarvis—was the only other player under par, finishing at two under with a closing 67.
At the trophy ceremony, the presenter interviewing de la Fuente regaled him with everything to come—exemptions into the three majors, the British Amateur, and the U.S. Amateur. What did it mean to him? The champion who had fallen in love with golf the moment his parents gave him a set of Snoopy-themed golf clubs at age three considered the question, and settled on the only answer that seemed to sum it up:
"Not a bad summer, right?"
No indeed—and a pretty solid start to 2024, too.