By Ron Driscoll, USGA
Jorge Garcia’s fourth Latin America Amateur Championship was off to a great start, even before he executed back-to-back scrambling pars on Saturday to finish off an opening round of even-par 71.
It was off to an excellent start even before he made a solid birdie on the opening par 4.
Garcia’s good vibes began before he even got to Santiago and Prince of Wales Country Club, when he found out that three family members would be accompanying him to the championship.
“It’s been an awesome week having them along,” said Garcia, 21, of Venezuela. “Today there were probably 200 people out there following Joaquin [Niemann], so it was nice to have somebody on my side.”
Garcia played with the world’s No. 1 amateur Niemann, whose presence brought out fellow Chileans as well as the television cameras. Garcia’s 71 bested Niemann by three strokes and left him three strokes out of the lead after the opening round.
It also put Garcia three strokes ahead of 2016 LAAC champion Paul Chaplet, of Costa Rica, who edged Garcia at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic two years ago when Garcia’s birdie putt to force a playoff slipped past the hole. Garcia had finished solo 10th in the inaugural LAAC, and last year in his third start he finished in a tie for 30th place.
“This was a perfect start for me,” said Garcia, who transferred last month from the University of Florida, where he was a junior, to Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., a Division II school. “I’ve been preaching staying patient all week, and I think it showed coming down the stretch.”
Garcia got up and down on the par-4 17th after an indifferent iron shot, and on the difficult closing hole, he was blocked by trees on his tee shot. He managed to get his ball into a greenside bunker, then knocked the bunker shot within inches of the hole to stay at even par for the day, in a tie for 16th place.
“To be honest, I think this course sets up well for me,” said Garcia, who has represented Venezuela in the past three World Amateur Team Championships. “The greens are small and I’m putting really well right now. Some of the tee shots were challenging in the beginning; it was a little different from what we played in the practice rounds, which made it a little hard to figure out the lines.”
Garcia has already enrolled at Barry, and he is optimistic about the change in schools, which puts him much closer to his family’s home in Doral and his swing coach, Patricia Gonzalez.
“My first two years [at Florida] were tough for me,” admitted Garcia, who competed in just one event for the Gators last fall. “The administration was amazing; they made it as easy as possible for me. Having tried a really big school, I just needed a little change for me.”
A native of Venezuela, Garcia began playing golf at age 4, and he and his family played golf at a local course until it closed when he was 9. Garcia continued to pursue his golf dreams by moving to the U.S., where he attended American Heritage School, in Plantation, Fla. Along the way, he twice earned AJGA First-Team All-America honors, as well as several victories that included a pair of South American Juniors and the 2013 Venezuela Amateur.
Now Garcia is on the move again as he plots his future course.
“I’m getting ready for professional golf, whether that’s a year from now, a year and half,” said Garcia. “It’s very important for me to be around people who are pushing positive vibes all the time.”
The vibes at Prince of Wales Country Club are trending that way, too.