By Ron Driscoll, USGA
PANAMA CITY, Panama – Standing on the 10th fairway of Club de Golf de Panama in a hole-by-hole playoff, Toto Gana, of Chile, sensed an opportunity to take charge of the 3rd Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC).
“My opponents had hit – one to the left and one to the right,” said Gana, whose name means “win” in Spanish. “I thought to myself, I have the advantage now.”
Gana had held the advantage just two holes earlier. Leading by one stroke on the 72nd hole, he sailed the green with his approach shot on the 457-yard par 4, leading to a bogey that created a three-man playoff at 1-under-par 279 with countryman Joaquin Niemann and Alvaro Ortiz, of Mexico.
Gana then needed to hole a 10-foot putt on the first playoff hole – No. 18 again – to keep himself in the running as Niemann and Ortiz both made comfortable two-putt pars.
On the second playoff hole, the 386-yard, par-4 10th, Niemann bunkered his approach and Ortiz found the green, but left himself with a long, difficult birdie putt. Hitting last from 99 yards, Gana took his 52-degree wedge and sent the ball 2 feet from the hole to set up an easy birdie and become the second player from Chile to capture the LAAC in its three editions.
“I hit the best shot I’ve hit in my whole life, at the best time,” said Gana, 19, who entered the LAAC at No. 285 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ (WAGR), 280 spots behind his close friend Niemann, 18. “I’ve never felt this feeling in my body before.”
Gana, who will begin studies in two weeks at Lynn University in Florida, held a two-stroke advantage on the 17th tee as he played the final round with Niemann and Ortiz. Gana made a solid two-putt par on the 177-yard par 3. Unfortunately for him, Niemann and Ortiz both made birdie putts to close within one stroke. When Gana made bogey from behind the green after hitting into a fairway bunker on the home hole, the first playoff in LAAC history was on.
“I wasn’t so frustrated,” said Gana of losing his late lead. “What I did was keep a cool head. The only thing I wanted to do was go on and play the next hole and be as enthused as possible.”
Ortiz, the younger brother of PGA Tour professional Carlos Ortiz, rued a couple of missed final-round opportunities of his own.
“On No. 10, I made a double bogey from the middle of the fairway,” said Ortiz, who finished tied for third in the first LAAC in 2015 at Pilar Golf in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “And on No. 15 [a drivable, 280-yard par 4], I hit a perfect 3-wood to the middle of the green and I three-putted [for par]. That was the one that I really thought was going to cost me.”
Ortiz rebounded with a birdie on No. 17, and despite finishing as joint runner-up, the junior at the University of Arkansas was upbeat.
“I’m just happy that I gave myself a chance to win again,” said Ortiz, 21, who is No. 250 in the WAGR. “I think I learned a lot from both Toto and Joaquin. You could see the feeling they had, of wanting to win, and it was amazing to be a part of it.”
Gana joins Matias Dominguez as LAAC champions from Chile, and his mental toughness is a product of his work ethic – he noted that he has practiced every day for the past year and a half.
“I think what Matias did was give a boost to my generation,” said Gana. “He showed us that Chileans are able to win big things. Players like him, [PGA Tour player] Benjamin Alvarado and [Web.com Tour player] Guillermo Pereira, knowing they are there makes me want to do it as well, because I know we can.”
Niemann, who plans to enroll at the University of South Florida in the fall, offset a double-bogey 6 at the ninth hole and a pair of bogeys with four birdies on the day as the final grouping settled into a near-match play competition on the final few holes. Despite his close call, Niemann was thrilled for his close friend’s victory.
“I believe he deserves it 100 percent, all the sacrifice he makes,” said Niemann. “I am very happy for him and I’m waiting for next year so I can have my chance.”
Two players in the groupings just ahead of them challenged the playoff trio, and they were the youngest and oldest to make the cut. Julian Perico, 17, of Peru, who led after a record opening round of 64, finished with a 1-under 69 to finish at even-par 280. Perico was joined there in a tie for fourth by Alvaro E. Ortiz, 48, of Costa Rica, the second-round leader, who closed with an even-par 70 after narrowly missing a few birdie bids down the stretch.
With his victory, Gana earns entry into the 2017 Masters Tournament, as well as exemptions into The Amateur Championship (conducted by The R&A) and the U.S. Amateur Championship (conducted by the United States Golf Association). Along with Ortiz and Niemann, he earns spots in final qualifying for both the U.S. Open and The 146th Open at Royal Birkdale.
Next up, Chile will serve as host of the 2018 LAAC, at Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago.
“This win shows the commitment and the effort all the golfers are putting in, and it’s mainly because of the LAAC,” said Dominguez, a product of Texas Tech University. “They can see a huge opportunity in their lives, golf as a vehicle of education, to go to college and have a chance to go to the Masters. This competition also allows us to make really good friends, lifelong friends.”