For the first time in its three-year history, the Latin America Amateur Championship was decided in a playoff. And for the second time, the tournament winner was Chilean. In 2015, the golfer who came out on top was Matias Dominguez, a native of that nation’s capital of Santiago. And in the 2017 edition, which was staged from January 12-15 at the Club de Golf de Panama outside Panama City, the victor was Tomas Gana, a diminutive, dark-haired 19-year-old who goes by the nickname “Toto” and who amused members of the news media in his post-round press conference by doing a terrific imitation of Donald Duck.
One of eight players from Chile in the field and ranked 285th among the world’s amateur, Gana prevailed on the second playoff hole Sunday afternoon after stiffing a wedge to 2 feet and then calmly sinking his birdie putt.
“I hit the best shot I’ve hit in my whole life, at the best time,” said Gana, who begins college at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., in late January. “I’ve never felt this feeling in my body before.”
Playing in the final group that day with fellow Chilean Joaquin Niemann, 18, and Alvaro Ortiz, 21, of Mexico, Gana used a birdie on the par-4 15th hole to open a two-stroke lead over those two and a pair of competitors playing in front of them, 17-year-old Julian Perico of Peru, who was the youngest participant, and Alvaro E. Ortiz of Costa Rica, a sweet-swinging 48-year-old who was one of the oldest.
But Gana staggered a bit down the stretch, saving pars with a pair of testy putts on Nos. 16 and 17 and then bogeying the 18th as Niemann, a future University of South Florida player, and Ortiz, a junior at Arkansas, used birdies on the 17th to tie him after 72 holes at 1-under-par 279. Gana made a gutsy up-and-down on the first playoff hole to keep things going as all three players made pars on the 18th hole. Then Gana holed his birdie on the second playoff hole, the par-4 10th, for the win that earns an invitation into this year’s Masters Tournament as well as the British Amateur and U.S. Amateur. It also exempts Gana into the final qualifying for the British Open and the sectionals for the U.S. Open.
Perico and Alvaro E. Ortiz fought hard but just missed being a part of the playoff, finishing one shot back at even-par 280. It was an especially inspired performance for Ortiz, as no one over age 24 had ever made it into the top 10 of the LAAC. Raul Pereda of Mexico and Bolivian Jose Luis Montano were three back of those two, tied for sixth, as a trio of players – Nicolas Echavarria of Colombia, Andrea Gallegos of Argentina and hometown favorite Miguel Ordonez of Panama – were bunched in eighth. Not surprisingly, the 33-year-old Ordonez drew the most enthusiastic galleries of the tournament, and he seemed to savor every moment, smiling broadly as he walked the fairways of the golf course where he learned to play the game and pumping his fist after good shots. And he hit a lot of those.
This year’s Latin America Amateur drew 108 competitors from 27 countries. The cut was 9-over par, and 52 players made it to weekend play, led by Alvaro E. Ortiz at 3-under 137. A 24-time Costa Rican national champion, he held a one-shot edge after 36 holes over another “graybeard,” 37-year-old Alejandro Villavicencio of Guatemala, and Henrik Machado of Brazil.
Gana was tied for sixth after the first two rounds and then shared the 54-hole lead with Ortiz of Mexico after carding a cool 69 on Saturday. That put them both a shot ahead of Niemann, who came into the tournament as the fifth-ranked amateur golfer in the world. Then came Sunday, which saw Gana make one nervy putt after another before he finally put his opponents away.