By Ron Driscoll, USGA
PANAMA CITY, Panama – The Latin America Amateur Championship will be contested for the third time this week – and for the first time in Central America. But no matter the region, the vagaries of the game remain the same.
“A player might have only 120 or 130 yards into the green, playing a wedge shot, and you would think it’s a chance for them to be aggressive,” said Jeff Hall, managing director of Rules and Competitions for the USGA, who is guiding the course setup for this week’s LAAC at Club de Golf de Panama.
“But the terrain here adds an element to the test. If you’re not quite comfortable playing a shot that’s a little uphill, a little downhill, a little sidehill, it could expose that fact.”
This will not be the course’s first exposure to top-caliber players. It has played host to a Web.com Tour event since 2004, and it will host that tour’s Panama Claro Championship again from Feb. 16-19. In 2016, Ryan Armour won by three strokes with a 12-under-par total of 268.
“This course has certainly proved to be a solid test, based on the performance of the Web.com Tour through the years,” said Hall. “A lot of that has to do with the climate and the weather conditions they encounter, but it’s also the golf course itself. It will be plenty challenging for these players.”
Hall and Darin Bevard, the USGA’s director of championship agronomy, are mindful of course conditions as they prepare for the two days of practice rounds on Jan. 10-11 and the four rounds of stroke play on Jan. 12-15.
“Despite the record rains they had here in November and December, it’s very apparent that we have to keep an eye on the course getting too firm,” said Hall. “The locals don’t think we’re going to get any rain, and you can pretty much bet on winds from the north-northwest every day in the 5-10-mile-an-hour range, up to 10-15 miles an hour in the afternoon.”
Along with the rolling topography, the wind is sure to wreak a bit of havoc with the 108-player field, particularly as it becomes more gusty later in the day.
“Despite the advances in equipment and how good players have become, wind brings a little uncertainty and indecision into the equation,” said Hall.
“Is it a two-club wind or a one-club wind? What if I flight the shot down a little bit? And if the course is firm as well, it’s not going to simply be an aerial game – they need to contemplate what happens when the ball is on the ground as well.”
The course will play to a par of 70, with a scorecard yardage of 7,142, although the daily figure is likely to vary widely from that number.
The Latin America Amateur, which is conducted by the Masters Tournament, The R&A and the USGA, welcomes competitors from nearly 30 countries throughout South America, Central America and the Caribbean, with a wide range of players competing, a factor that influences course setup.
“The elite players in this field are quite skilled and accomplished,” said Hall. “But one of the missions of this championship is to inspire golf in the region. As a result, there are some players who are not at that level of play yet. While we’re not trying to cater to one group or the other, we do have to be mindful in our setup that everybody needs to be able to finish, especially on Thursday and Friday [after which the field will be trimmed to the low 50 scorers and ties].”
The course, which was designed by Jay Riviere and Charles Schaeffer and opened in 1977, provides plenty of flexibility in course setup.
“We have converted two holes from par 5s into par 4s – Nos. 9 and 11,” said Hall. “Both of them will play in the 480-yard range and with the prevailing breeze. No. 11 is very demanding, with a water carry on the tee shot and another water carry on the second shot. We will be thoughtful about setting up that hole, because for the elite players to be able to carry the ball 250 yards in the air over the water is probably not a big ask, but it is for other players in this field.”