Since its inception in 2015, the Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC) has fulfilled its purpose of advancing amateur golf and creating heroes within the region. This mission was on full display in 2022, with a champion making the cut at The 150th Open at St Andrews and a runner-up qualifying for the 122nd U.S. Open at The Country Club.
“It was crazy in a good way, and it is awesome to know that I can come out here and compete with these guys. Just got to trust your game plan and just have fun when you play,” said 2022 LAAC champion Aaron Jarvis at St Andrews, after becoming the first Caymanian to qualify for both the Masters Tournament and The Open, and the first reigning LAAC champion to make the cut in the latter.
It was his second major of the year, following an invitation to the Masters where he got to meet his hero, Tiger Woods. “I got to talk to him and Joe (LaCava) for 10 minutes or so, it was just incredible,” recalled the 19-year-old amateur, who birdied Augusta National par 3s 12 and 16 for a second round 74, not enough to make the cut after struggling on the first day.
In addition to the invitations to the Masters and The Open for the LAAC champion, Jarvis and the four runners-up in 2022, Argentinians Mateo Fernández de Oliveira and Vicente Marzilio, Mexican Santiago de la Fuente, and Brazilian Fred Biondi, who all finished one stroke back, received exemptions into the final stages of qualifying for the U.S. Open.
Of the three who tried their chances, Biondi made history for the LAAC when he grabbed the last of four spots at The Club at Admiral’s Cove in Jupiter, Florida. He beat notable names such as Rickie Fowler, Tom Lewis, and Matthias Schwab by one stroke, becoming the first LAAC runner-up to qualify for the U.S. Open.
“It means a lot to me to represent Brazil and South America. Golf is not a big sport in Brazil, so I feel like anything I can do can make a big impact,” said Biondi, echoing a common feeling expressed before by other notable LAAC alumni.
“One of the most impressive memories I have in golf is winning the LAAC in my country, in front of my people. It was an unforgettable week and one of the best things that has happened in my life,” said Chilean Joaquin Niemann, who went on to win on the PGA Tour in 2019 and 2022 after his 2018 LAAC victory in Santiago, Chile.
Niemann won the 2018 LAAC with a five-stroke advantage over Mexican Alvaro Ortiz, who finished runner-up in 2017 and 2018 and won the 2019 edition in the Dominican Republic. “The LAAC opened an opportunity for me since I was very young,” said Ortiz, who in 2019 became the first LAAC champion to make the cut in the Masters. “Those months after winning the LAAC are the time that formed my golf career and helped me get where I am now.”
The Latin America Amateur Championship was also a launching pad for three new members of the Korn Ferry Tour, Mexican Emilio González and Argentinians Alejandro Tosti and Abel Gallegos, winner of the 2020 LAAC. It was also a treasured memory for Colombian Nicolás Echavarría, who earned his card for the 2023 PGA Tour season. Additionally, Echavarría’s fellow countryman Sebastián Muñoz and Chilean Mito Pereira were both members of the International Team during the 2022 Presidents Cup this past September.
“The first LAAC was very special for me. I remember I was in the last group on Sunday and Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley walked along with us during a few holes,” said Muñoz, with one win on the PGA Tour and perhaps the best average performance in majors among LAAC alumni (T-19 at the 2020 Masters and T-14 at the 2022 U.S. Open).
The achievements of the LAAC alumni over the recent months are a testament to the advancement of golf in the region. With 10 of the top-11 finishers from 2022 expected to return this coming January for the eighth edition in Puerto Rico, it would be no surprise if this new breed of heroes continues to find success at the highest level.