By Ron Driscoll, USGA
PANAMA CITY, Panama – Alvaro Ortiz, 21, of Mexico, and Toto Gana, 19, of Chile, both carded under-par rounds on a breezy Saturday to move into a tie for the lead through three rounds of the 3rd Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC) on Saturday at Club de Golf de Panama.
Ortiz, a junior at the University of Arkansas and the younger brother of PGA Tour player Carlos Ortiz, posted a 3-under-par 67, while Gana birdied a pair of holes down the stretch to finish with a 1-under 69. The leaders are at 2-under 208 through 54 holes, one stroke ahead of Joaquin Niemann, 18, of Chile, who matched Ortiz’s 67 and is the highest-ranked player in the field at No. 5 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ (WAGR).
Alvaro E. Ortiz, of Costa Rica, who at 48 is the oldest player to make the 36-hole cut, held a one-stroke lead after two rounds but made six bogeys on the way to a 3-over 73 on Saturday and slipped two strokes behind the leaders at even-par 210. He is tied for fourth with Nicolas Echavarria, of Colombia, a former teammate of the younger Ortiz’s at Arkansas who graduated in May. If he does not win on Sunday, Echavarria plans to turn professional, joining his older brother, Andres, on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica.
“My day went very smoothly from the beginning – I made a birdie and an eagle in the first four holes,” said Ortiz, who has represented Mexico in the last two World Amateur Team Championships. “But on the seventh hole, the wind came up and that changed my strategy a little bit. I started playing for the middle of the green.”
Ortiz offset a pair of bogeys with a pair of birdies the rest of the way, and he plans to draw on the 67 he shot in the final round of the inaugural LAAC two years ago at Pilar Golf in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he rallied to tie for third place, two strokes behind winner Matias Dominguez, of Chile.
“The feeling I had the last couple of holes in 2015 was like nothing I had ever experienced before,” said Ortiz, who is No. 250 in the WAGR. “But I’ve been in this position, and to know what I’m going to feel tomorrow is a big advantage for me.”
The winner of the LAAC will earn an exemption 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 the runner(s)-up, he will also earn spots in final qualifying for the U.S. Open and The Open Championship.
Gana – whose surname means “win” in Spanish – is No. 285 in the WAGR and shares the same coach [Eduardo Michel] as Niemann, his close friend.
“I’m very happy – it was a very solid round,” said Gana, who missed the cut in the 2016 LAAC at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. “I’m trusting my swing, and the most important thing is that my head is in a good place. I’m going to play with my friend Joaquin and it will be a battle between the two of us.”
The final grouping of Ortiz, Gana and Niemann will tee off at 9:50 a.m. on Sunday, 11 minutes after the trio of the elder Ortiz, Echavarria and Miguel Ordonez, of Panama. Ordonez, 33, delighted club members and friends by shooting a 2-under 68 on his home course and will begin the final round in a tie for sixth place at 1-over 211 with Julian Perico, 17, of Chile, the youngest player in the field, whose record score of 64 led the championship after Round 1.
“It’s hard to describe,” said Ordonez, who earned a loud cheer when he saved par on the final green. “It’s my hometown, my home course – most of the people following me have known me since I was 3 or 4 years old. I see looks of pride, from people who feel like one of their own is doing something really special.”
One player will accomplish a special feat on Sunday, joining Dominguez and 2016 winner Paul Chaplet, of Costa Rica, as an LAAC champion. For Ortiz, it would give him a leg up on his older brother, Carlos.
“I’m going to be quite aggressive tomorrow because I’ve been hitting the ball so well,” said Alvaro. “I’ve only beaten him a couple of times in my life. To get to the Masters before him would be special.”