By Ron Driscoll, USGA
PANAMA CITY, Panama – When Paul Chaplet began the final round of the 2016 Latin America Amateur Championship, he stood in a three-way tie for fifth place, four strokes behind the leader, Gaston Bertinotti, of Argentina.
That had all changed by the time Chaplet, then 16 years old, reviewed a leader board on the 14th fairway at Casa de Campo. Bertinotti was on the way to a round of 5-over-par 77, and Chaplet, of Costa Rica, was tied for the lead with two other players.
“I thought if I could just get a birdie on the [short par-5] 14th hole and par in, I had a pretty good chance of winning,” said Chaplet, who kept his poise down the stretch and edged Jorge Garcia, of Venezuela, by one stroke to earn a victory that changed his life.
“I thought I was going to have this calm year [in 2016] where I was just going to try to play well in junior events and hopefully get into a good college,” said Chaplet, who instead received entry into the Masters Tournament, The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Junior Amateur thanks to his win, as well as berths in final qualifying for both the U.S. Open and The Open Championship. “Winning the tournament was a big door-opening thing and I got to play all these great events. It was a crazy year.”
Chaplet became the first player from Central America and the second-youngest to ever compete in the Masters, where he played in practice rounds and competition alongside players such as Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and Davis Love III, later noting that, “I learned much more during those days than in my whole career as an amateur.”
Chaplet, who plans to enroll at Arizona State University in the fall, did not make the cut at Augusta National, and he also failed to reach match play in The Amateur Championship at Royal Porthcawl and the U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills. He did advance to the Round of 32 in the U.S. Junior Amateur, and was encouraged by the experience he gained from each of the championships.
“I look back and I feel like it was a year of learning,” said Chaplet. “Although I didn’t play great, I feel like I learned a lot more than if I had played well.”
Among the lessons is a realization that there is no switch he can flip that will instantly give him the results he wants.
“I’ve been patient all year, and I continue to be patient,” said Chaplet. “Results are not something you just draw out of a box. You’ve got to put in the hard work, and hopefully I can build on the experiences and get some momentum that will lead to good results.”
Chaplet’s principal goal now is to complete his senior year at St. Mary School in San Jose, Costa Rica.
“This event will probably be one of the last events I play this year, because I’ve been spending a lot of time completing the schoolwork that I need to go to Arizona State,” said Chaplet. “I had a lot of opportunities after winning the Latin America Amateur, and I was looking for a place where I would have connections with the coach and with the players I’d be playing with.”
His path to Tempe, Ariz., was nearly waylaid by a coaching change, but he is thrilled that he is en route to the Pac-12 Conference school that boasts a rich golf pedigree.
“At first I spoke with Tim Mickelson, but when he left the school I kind of lost contact with them,” said Chaplet of ASU’s former coach, who left the program after five years to represent former World No. 1 amateur and Sun Devil standout Jon Rahm in his pro career. “When Matthew Thurmond and Van Williams took over the program, I was very happy that I got the chance to talk with them. And when I visited the school, I enjoyed every single minute I spent there. It was a great fit.”
Chaplet is excited to follow the U.S. college path of friend and fellow Costa Rica golfer Jose Mendez, who is completing his senior year at the University of Minnesota, where he will graduate in May with a degree in business marketing. Mendez will be able to provide counsel as Chaplet embarks on the new adventure later this year.
“At first I was afraid about going to college by myself,” said Mendez, 21, who is competing in his third LAAC this week, with a top finish of T-13 in 2015. “My family told me to give it a try, and if I don’t like it I can come back. When you go away, you have to learn to do everything for yourself – but it’s worth it to take yourself out of that bubble. It’s helped me to be a better person every day.”
It’s safe to say that Mendez’s experience – along with that of 24-time national champion Alvaro E. Ortiz, 48, who played alongside Chaplet last year in the final round of the LAAC – will inspire the estimated 400 golfers in Costa Rica’s junior program.
“We’re a small country of maybe 3,000 golfers, with 11 golf courses,” said Chaplet. “More than anything, I feel like my win last year gave kids in our country belief that they can do it. We have two players at U.S. colleges and a great junior program. It’s fun to watch it develop.”