The Latin America Amateur Championship is proving to be more than a bold idea
LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic — Promesas Del Futuro, it says on the billboard as you pass through the main entrance at Casa de Campo, site of the 2019 Latin America Amateur Championship. The words are superimposed over a photo of a golfer in full follow through. The phrase can be found in other places around the picturesque property as well. It even appears on the room keys for resort guests.
Such a boast is as simple as it is grand. But so is the mission of the LAAC, the tournament that brings together the best players from more than two dozen countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean—108 of whom competed last week on Pete Dye’s spellbinding Teeth of the Dog course.
Since its first playing in 2015, the event has aimed to fulfill a noble goal: Grow the game in a region where interest in golf often ranks second (or third or fourth) among sports through the development of a signature amateur event that can inspire a new generation of golfers. Fueling the tournament—financially and otherwise—are a trio of the game’s most powerful stakeholders, the R&A and USGA, golf’s governing bodies, and the Masters, which dangles the tastiest of carrots as motivation—a invitation to the LAAC champion to compete at Augusta National.
Five years after the “Founding Partners” came together to create the event—modeled after its predecessor, the 10-year-old Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship—there are reasons to believe they’re making good on their pledge.
“This tournament is doing something really, really big. It’s literally putting bigger dreams in kids,” says Chile’s Matias Dominguez, an acolyte as well as one of the championship’s patron saints after winning the inaugural LAAC in 2015. The 26-year-old cites as evidence the crowds that have begun attending professional and amateur events in his home country, saying there are double and triple the numbers they had been pre-LAAC.
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You could see some of the same thing in the galleries at Casa de Campo. On a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon, Rafael De Cordova was walking with his two sons, Sebastian and Oscar, age 13 and 9. They’re from Peru and were on vacation in the Dominican when they came across an advertisement for the event. Countryman Luis Fernando Barco was in contention, so they decided to follow him.
“We’ve never been to a golf tournament before,” De Cordova said. “But this looked like fun.”
On Sunday, dozens of Mexican fans followed 54-hole leader Alvaro Ortiz and were rewarded when the 23-year-old became the first golfer from their country to win the title. They’ll be cheering him on again, in spirit if not in person, when he becomes the first Mexican to play in the Masters in 40 years, turning Ortiz, by default, into an instant celebrity.
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“I think when we started this … I’m not sure anybody would have foreseen the championship becoming this popular, this quickly,” says Mike Davis, the CEO of the USGA.
Davis’ words are echoed, as least in part, by his peer at the Masters, Fred Ridley, and the R&A, Martin Slumbers, who along with dozens of other officials with the three organizations made their presence known last week.
Mind you, there are no definitive metrics to back up the claim. For that you have to rely on anecdotal information, much of which is compelling.
“Let me tell you what it’s meant for us in the Dominican Republic,” says Francisco Bordas, the director of the Dominican Golf Federation. “When we first played the LAAC [at Casa de Campo] in 2016, we only had two players ranked in the WAGR [the World Amateur Golf Ranking, which helps fill the field]. Now we have six boys and three girls. All of them want to play in this kind of tournament. They wish to play on the Dominican team and in the LAAC.”
No sooner are the words out of his mouth, when Bordas points to an 11-year-old boy standing outside the Teeth of the Dog clubhouse. He’s wearing knickers and a Hogan-style cap. His name is Rodrigo Huerta, and he’s part of the Dominican federation’s junior program. “He’s from a town four hours away,” Bordas says, “but he came here to see his idols because in a couple of years, he wants to be here, too. It’s having an impact.”
“I see a lot of the little kids who are now involved with our national team,” says Mexico’s Ortiz. “They hang out a national tournaments, and they’re really into it. They 15, 16 and 17 and they’re really good. They’re putting in the work. They want to try to go to college. They want to eventually play professionally. It’s a different mindset.”
There are some encouraging stats to consider as well:
• 20 of the 28 countries in the field last week had players make the cut and play on the weekend.
• Seven countries had players finish in the top 10 on Sunday.
• Four players in the top 100 on the WAGR competed in the field, and 13 from the top 250.
• 35 players in the field had either finished college careers in the U.S. in the last two years, are currently playing college golf, or are set to begin within the year. Estimates say that in the first year the number was only in the single digits.
Arkansas men’s golf coach Brad McMakin, who coached Ortiz from 2014-’18 and now has Peru’s Julian Perico, No. 87 in the world, as a freshman on his roster, was attending the LAAC for the first time last week. “The talent level has definitely increased in Latin America,” McMakin said. “It opened my eyes being here, and I feel like I need to come back next year.”
“When you think about it, we’re only five years in but you’re seeing a lot of the same progress that we saw with the Asia-Pacific Amateur,” Ridley told Golf Digest. “That’s encouraging.”
Last fall’s Asia-Pacific Amateur had a field that included 16 of the top 50 players in the world, according to Ridley. It was a high enough number that the R&A officials joined the Masters in extending a full exemption into the Open Championship for the winner compared to previously only having them get into final qualifying.
Helping legitimize the event is the fact that Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, a two-time winner, has gone on to become one of the top-ranked professionals in the world.
The Latin America Amateur might have a similar transcendent player in Joaquin Niemann. The native of Chile was the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world when he won the LAAC in 2018 at age 19, shooting an emphatic closing 63 to win the title. He played a few months later at the Masters, where he missed the cut, but the experience solidified his belief that he was ready to play at the professional level. And by the end of the summer, Niemann had made enough money playing in PGA Tour events on sponsor’s exemptions to earn a full tour card for 2019.
His profile in Chile was such that he won the nation’s sportsman of the year award, given to athletes from all sports.
Niemann’s sudden rise is buffeted by smaller accomplishments. Costa Rica’s Luis Gagne, who shot a Sunday 66 to finish in solo second behind Ortiz, earned a share of low-amateur honors last year at the U.S. Open. His performance at Shinnecock Hills garnered him messages from Costa Ricans on Facebook telling him how much pride he was bringing to their nation.
And when Argentina’s Jesus Dario Montenegro, then the 998th ranked player in the world, competed at last year’s U.S. Amateur and knocked off U.S. Walker Cupper Braden Thornberry, who was the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world, it had a ripple effect.
“You have that small success, and then the core group in your federation who gets excited,” Dominguez said. “Then sponsors gets excited and more money flows into the federation, which means they can support more players.”
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This is all well and good, but inspiring those who have already taken up the sport isn’t necessarily the same as growing the game. Slumbers acknowledges more fundamental investments must take place from a long-term standpoint to truly increase interest and participation.
“When you look at what we are trying to do as on organization around the world, [it] is [to] ensure that golf is thriving 50 years from now,” Slumbers says. “That’s really what drives us. … We've been working in Latin America for many years, and when we think about it in terms of the next 50 years, the opportunity for the game to grow in this region is huge. But to make that reality, you need to have the whole pyramid of the game from grass roots in schools, with children, learning to play the game, through clubs, through public facilities, through places that are easily accessible, right up to the elite event.”
Of course, that requires money at the local level, something the R&A helps assist with but cannot be the true driver.
That’s where the Niemanns of the world come in.
“What the region really needs to get going is more public facilities, more open and accessible facilities for young children to learn, and we are working with all the federations to try and make that happen,” Slumbers said. “And if one of those winners goes on and wins one of our championships in the coming years, I’m sure that will really get the game going in this region.“
Until then, incremental movement in skill-based metrics is the best way to measure the impact the LAAC is having.
“We’re committed to doing everything we can to strength this tournament right now,” says Ridley, who believes the sixth edition of the LAAC next January at Mayakoba in Mexico will be even better than this week in the Dominican.
The promesas del futuro are riding on it.