PANAMA CITY, PANAMA – Julian Perico, 17, of Peru, picked a fortuitous day to shoot his career-low round, while Miguel Ordonez of the host country delivered an emotional birthday present to his daughter on Thursday in Round 1 of the third Latin America Amateur Championship at par-70 Club de Golf de Panama, which played to 6,878 yards in the opening round.
Perico, the youngest player in the field, broke the LAAC 18-hole scoring record with a 6-under-par 64, which included a 29 on his first nine holes of the day, also a championship record. Perico holds a one-stroke lead over Alejandro Villavicencio, 37, a reinstated amateur who owns a steakhouse in his native Guatemala.
Ordonez, 33, joined fellow Panamanian Jose Guillermo Lewis as the first players to hit tee shots in the championship, the first LAAC to be held in Central America. Ordonez started on the 10th hole and made the turn in 1 over par before reeling off five birdies on his incoming nine. He bogeyed his final hole, the 479-yard, par-4 ninth, but was thrilled to open with a 3-under 67, three strokes back of Perico, in a three-way tie for third place with Nicolas Echavarria, of Colombia, and Jose Luis Montano, of Bolivia.
“It’s probably the round I will cherish the most in my life,” said Ordonez, who rushed to compete in the inaugural LAAC in 2015 in Argentina following the birth of his daughter, Aurora, who turned 2 on Thursday. “To have her in my thoughts and in my heart, she’s everything to me. Look, I hope to be there on Sunday and have a chance to dream of winning, but this was special.”
Perico’s day was equally special, though he certainly would not have predicted anything of the sort.
“Actually, I was hitting the ball pretty bad on the range, and I was like, I don’t know what will happen today,” said Perico, who attends Bishops Gate Golf Academy in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla. “On hole No. 10 [his opening hole], I pushed my tee shot and I had to hit this stinger from underneath the trees. I hit it to 7 feet for birdie and I made it. After that, I don’t know what happened. I was hitting the ball perfect, the putts were falling in perfect; it was amazing.”
Perico birdied four consecutive holes (Nos. 12-15) and added a birdie on No. 18, one of just six birdies by the 108-player field on the 454-yard par 4. After making the turn and parring No. 1, Perico’s dream round almost turned to a nightmare after he deliberated over his approach shot on the par-4 second.
“I hit the best 7-iron of my life – 180 yards into the wind, and it flew the green,” said Perico, who was introduced to the game at age 3 and moved to Florida from his native Lima at 14. “I was trying to find my ball and suddenly a girl came up to me with my ball in her hand. She had grabbed it. I laughed a bit, and I got distracted. I called the Rules official and placed it back where it was, but I ended up making a double bogey.”
Somehow, the youngster shook off the incident and birdied his next two holes. He finished with five consecutive pars to post his first-ever round of 6 under. His 64 eclipsed rounds of 65 by Matias Dominguez (2015), Alejandro Tosti (2016) and Echavarria (2016).
Villavicencio, who has represented Guatemala in three World Amateur Team Championships (2000, 2002 and 2016) but is competing in his first LAAC, made eight birdies and three bogeys in matching the championship’s previous low score of 65. He played in the first group of the day off No. 1 with Lewis and Henry Kattan, of Honduras, dropping a shot on the difficult 18th to slip behind Perico.
“I felt nervous, especially being in the first group,” said Villavicencio, who abandoned golf in his late teens to compete in jet-skiing, then returned to the game as a professional until 2010. “But I think anyone who plays competitive golf is going to feel nervous. It’s just a matter of trying to control it and trying to handle it and embracing it.”
Villavicencio played Club de Golf de Panama as a junior and made the first hole-in-one of his career on the par-3 13th here. He also competed twice in the Web.com Tour event that the club has hosted since 2004.
Eight countries are represented among the top nine players on the leader board, with Gaston Bertinotti (Argentina), Santiago Gomez (Colombia), Jeronimo Esteve (Puerto Rico) and Toto Gana (Chile) in a four-way tie for sixth at 2-under 68.
Dominguez, of Chile, winner of the inaugural LAAC in 2015, is in a group of five players at even-par 70. Defending champion Paul Chaplet, of Costa Rica, and 2016 runner-up Jorge Garcia, of Venezuela, played together and shot rounds of 1-over 71, leaving them tied for 18th place, in a group of 12 players.
Ordonez, whose mother, Berta, followed him on his incoming nine, was realistic – but hopeful – about what this championship means to his home country.
“I teed off early, so I don’t think a lot of people were aware of how well I was playing,” said Ordonez, a graduate of the University of North Florida. “But I’m going to be really honest. I don’t think people in the country quite comprehend what this means. If I told you the presidents of FIFA, UEFA and CONMEBOL [South America’s soccer federation] were here, the country would be upside down.
“We have the three most important institutions in the game here,” said Ordonez of the Masters Tournament, The R&A and the USGA. “I don’t think there’s a better tournament in the world, in the sense of the love that the three institutions pour into it to grow the game. I hope my good round today sheds a little interest, not in me, but in what this means to the country. And hopefully one kid out there sees what I did today, and he can get inspired and hopefully take up the game.”