Chile’s Recent LAAC Success Forged by Junior Golf Initiative

By Ron Driscoll, USGA

For several years, Matias Dominguez of Chile was on the wrong end of a one-sided rivalry between his home country’s golf program and that of neighboring Argentina.

“Argentine golfers have always been better than us, just to be straightforward,” admitted Dominguez, 25. “We had always felt like we were a little behind. But our federation has improved a lot in supporting golf the past several years.”

That improved support system in Chile bore fruit in the inaugural Latin America Amateur Championship in 2015, which was hosted by Argentina. Alejandro Tosti of the host country was part of a stretch duel with Dominguez on Tosti’s home course, Pilar Golf outside Buenos Aires. This time, the player from Chile came out on top as Dominguez edged Tosti by one stroke. Two years later, Tomas “Toto” Gana of Chile captured the third Latin America Amateur, edging Alvaro Ortiz of Mexico and fellow Chilean Joaquin Niemann in a playoff.

All three of those Chilean players – Dominguez, Gana and Niemann – are among the 108 players who will compete in the fourth LAAC, which is being contested from Jan. 20-23 at Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago. The trio have another common thread, having all participated on the Golf Action Junior Tour, a junior golf program in Chile that was founded by Francisco Lyon in 1996.

“I started playing at age 4 or 5, and I began competing on the Golf Action Junior Tour when I was 7,” said Dominguez. “I believe that Golf Action’s first goal is for you to enjoy golf and to learn how to play correctly. They also don’t want parents too involved; they put a lot of emphasis on kids learning by themselves.”

Dominguez and Gana joined Niemann – the current No. 1 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking – in an appearance at a Santiago mall on Sunday designed to raise awareness about the upcoming LAAC. Admission is free and spectators are welcome to attend the championship, which provides the winner with entry into the 2018 Masters Tournament, as well as The Amateur Championship at Royal Aberdeen, the U.S. Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links, and any other USGA amateur championship for which he is eligible. In addition, the winner and the runner(s)-up are exempt into the final stage of qualifying for The 147th Open at Carnoustie and sectional qualifying for the 2018 U.S. Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

“The first time I met Joaquin he was probably about 12 years old and I was 15 or 16,” Dominguez recalled of Niemann, 19. “He was a very small kid then, and now he’s way taller than me. But I could tell from that moment that he was going to be a great player. And like all the good Chilean players – they all came from Golf Action.”

Dominguez describes an atmosphere in which golf provides much more than a competitive outlet for Chilean youngsters.

“Golf in Chile is still very small, especially when you’re a kid, and Golf Action is the place where they all come together up to 18 years old,” said Dominguez, who went on to play four years at Texas Tech University. “Once a month they play a tournament, and it’s a whole day, shared with each other. These kids are playing golf because they love it and they get to share it with their friends. It’s like golf bonding in Chile.”

The Chilean Golf Federation assumed stewardship of the Golf Action Junior Tour about a year ago, in another sign of its commitment to raise awareness and interest in the game.

“At one point, we decided that they had to be with us and we had to help them,” said Desiree Soulodre, one of the directors of the federation. “What we are trying to do is give them resources – from sponsors, from the government – to continue with golf development opportunities. We have a very good generation currently, but we need to look to the next five years, the next 10 years; they are the foundation of golf’s future.”

The Golf Action program is currently under the direction of Paz Echeverria, 32, who grew up in Chile and became the second player from her home country to compete on the LPGA Tour (after Nicole Perrot, who won the 2001 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship and earned one victory on the LPGA Tour, the 2005 Longs Drug Challenge). Echeverria and her cohorts with the Golf Action Tour program are finding that it’s so popular that it’s difficult to accommodate all the interested youngsters.

“Sometimes we have 150 participants at a tournament,” said Soulodre. “When we close the season, we do a big tournament with burgers and sodas for the kids, and we get 200 kids. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough resources right now, but we have some projects that will help the federation so we don’t have to depend on sponsors and the government.”

Soulodre understands the importance of bringing the game into children’s lives, having started playing at age 4.

“It’s something that’s going to be with them forever,” said Soulodre, who grew up in Vina del Mar, the fourth-largest city in Chile. “There’s so many things that golf taught me that we have to pass along to these kids – how to act with each other, help each other, how to be a good friend. I think that’s the main role of golf.”

Soulodre was an accomplished player who competed in the Junior World Championships in San Diego, as well as several Andes Cups and South American events for Chile.

“I love to represent my country,” said Soulodre, who took time away from the game to raise her family and recently competed in her first Senior Latin American Championship. “It’s awesome to come back to the sport as a board member. I went to Panama last year for the LAAC [when Gana edged Niemann and Ortiz at Club de Golf de Panama], and it was so amazing to follow Joaquin and Toto.”

Soulodre also points to Chile’s 15-and-under girls team that won the South American championship for the first time in 19 years.

“It’s happening slowly because the resources are scarce, but we are hitting targets and we are achieving things,” said Soulodre. “We hope to be able to provide all those things to the younger ones in the Golf Action program.”

“We still have a really big challenge – what is stopping us from raising golf in Chile is that we really don’t have enough public courses,” said Dominguez. “It’s hard to find the space, the resources and the people who have the know-how of how to create public courses and keep them going. Nearly all of our courses are private and very few people can afford that. So that’s the next step; I know it’s part of the long-term plan for the Chilean federation to build publicly.”

Dominguez recalls looking up to players such as Felipe Aguilar, 43, a two-time winner on the PGA European Tour, and Hugo Leon, 33, who competes on the PGA Tour Canada-Mackenzie Tour. Now, Chilean youngsters look up to him.

“We all know that golf is not just a sport, it’s an opportunity for kids to maybe get a scholarship and prepare for a good career,” said Dominguez, who works in Santiago for the largest investment bank in Latin America. “I don’t have an exact number, but the Chilean Golf Federation probably sends about 50 kids to more than 100 tournaments over the course of a year, and now you see how it’s paying off. As a country we’re realizing how important it is to put the effort in – in all sports, not only in golf.”

This week, Dominguez is putting the effort in on his home course – his family home is off the 14th hole – as Chile looks to build on its success in the championship. His preparation for the championship includes practicing for an hour in the morning and up to two hours in the evening. When asked about his chances, he smiled and said, “I’m one of the three players [in the field] who can say they know what it takes to win this kind of tournament.”