By Ron Driscoll, USGA
PANAMA CITY, Panama – It was a storybook finish: Miguel Ordonez of the home country holing a putt on the 72nd hole in front of friends and fellow club members at Club de Golf de Panama, then triumphantly lifting his daughter, Aurora, who turned 2 on Thursday, the first day of this year’s Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC).
Only Ordonez’s putt that saved par on the 18th green on Sunday was for a round of 3-over-par 73, which left the 33-year-old Panamanian in a tie for eighth place, five strokes out of the three-man playoff for the LAAC title that was won by Toto Gana, of Chile. Still, Ordonez was satisfied with the week, and the way he performed.
“I admit it – I felt like I was letting them down a little bit,” said Ordonez of the large contingent of family and friends who followed him all day. “The critic, the competitor in me, thinks I could have done better. At the same time, I haven’t played much golf under those circumstances.”
Ordonez played college golf at the University of South Florida, then weighed an opportunity to turn professional before he was dissuaded by fellow USF graduate Erik Labitzke.
“He very pragmatically went through my record,” said Ordonez. “He told me that he had had a better college record than me, and he didn’t make it. And nothing against PGA Tour Latinoamerica, but my goal would have been to play at the PGA Tour level. Instead, I decided to come back here to Panama and play in events like this, and be in charge of my own future.”
Ordonez ramped up his practice and playing schedule in advance of this week, and his efforts paid off with an opening round of 3-under 67, and after a rocky 76 on Friday, he bounced back with a 68 on Saturday. On Sunday, his father Miguel watched him play for the first time in years and Aurora, who was born just ahead of the first LAAC in 2015, was there to greet him at the end. There was another surprise after Round 3.
“One of the members of Augusta National followed me on Saturday,” said Ordonez. “After the round, he told me that [Augusta National chairman] Billy Payne wanted to meet me. Mr. Payne congratulated me and told me to go get ‘em [on Sunday]. It was one of the thrills of my life. It really was a magical week.”
Sportsmanship, Camaraderie Rule the Day
Even as they competed on Sunday for the LAAC trophy and the spoils that victory would bring, the final grouping of Toto Gana and Joaquin Niemann, both of Chile, and Alvaro Ortiz, of Mexico, chatted and encouraged each other, which carried through to the riveting finish, as the trio all competed in the hole-by-hole playoff to decide the champion.
“I think it was the maximum expression of golf, cheering each other,” said 2015 LAAC champion Matias Dominguez, of Chile. “These are kids who grew up playing together, including Alvaro, because they play a lot of events around the region. To see that in the last group, it’s beautiful – it’s what golf is supposed to be.”
Dominguez also credited the Golf Action junior tour in Chile, which was founded by Francisco Lyon, for providing a major boost to the game in his country.
“I started at 7 years old, and every Chilean golfer starts from there,” said Dominguez, who shot a final-round 68 to finish in a tie for 14th. Cristobal del Solar (T-12), Lucas Rosso (T-16), Claudio Correa (T-26) and Gabriel Morgan Birke (37th) also qualified for the weekend, giving Chile seven players among the 52 who made the 36-hole cut, most of any country, as the country prepares to host the 2018 LAAC at Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago, from Jan. 18-21.
“When Toto made that putt, I felt really happy and proud for him,” said Niemann, who entered the week at No. 5 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™, highest in the LAAC field. “Defending that title in our country is going to be even better. I’m sure we will have the support of all the Chileans who enjoy this game. It’s going to be a great show for everyone.”
Youngest in Field, Perico Makes Mark
Julian Perico, of Peru, turned heads with his opening round of 64, which eclipsed the LAAC 18-hole scoring record, then made noise on Sunday, briefly tying for the lead on the incoming nine before finishing in a tie for fourth place, one stroke out of the three-way playoff.
“I played wonderfully for the week,” said Perico, 17, the youngest player in the 108-player starting field, who will attend the University of South Florida in the fall. “I could have won the tournament – I just had four bad holes. But I gave myself a chance, and I have five more years of this event. I’m sure I can win one. I will start practicing tomorrow.”
The 15th hole, which was set up as a drivable 280-yard par 4 on Sunday, played a key role in the outcome. Of 51 players in the final round, 23 birdied it, including champion Gana, while 23 players parred it, including runner-up Ortiz, who three-putted after driving the green. Four players bogeyed it on Sunday, including Niemann, and one player made double bogey.
Five players tied for the low score of 2-under-par 68 on Sunday, including the two past champions. Dominguez, who had struggled to a second-round 78, rallied to finish in a tie for 14th. Paul Chaplet, of Costa Rica, who won in 2016 at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, finished at 8-over 288, in a tie for 16th place. Alejandro Tosti, of Argentina, who finished runner-up to Dominguez in 2015 at his home course of Pilar Golf in Buenos Aires, also carded a 68 on Sunday to finish at 286, in a tie for 12th. It was Tosti’s worst finish in three LAACs, as he tied for third in 2016.
Club de Golf de Panama, which had a listed scorecard yardage of 7,142 yards, was set up to play at its longest for the week on Saturday, when it was 6,997 yards. The 52 players averaged 74.2 strokes. On Sunday, it played at 6,851 yards and the 51 players (one withdrew) had a 72.5 stroke average. For the week, with 317 rounds completed, the course averaged 74.5 strokes.
The hardest hole for the week in relation to par was No. 7, a par 4 that averaged 4.51 strokes. The easiest were both par 5s – No. 12 at 4.97 (the only hole to average under par for the week), and No. 4 at 5.01. The most difficult par 3 for the week was No. 13, which averaged 3.24 strokes.