PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO | Argentina’s Abel Gallegos, the winner of the 2020 Latin America Amateur, grew up in a small town outside Buenos Aires called Veinticinco de Mayo, which translates into the 25th of May in English and is the date that commemorates the country’s independence from Spain more than two centuries ago. Neither of his parents played golf. But he grew up near a nine-hole course known as Las Mulitas, or Little Mules, and the golf professional there took an interest in Gallegos and gave him a single club when he was a boy. The youngster started practicing with that stick and became so good so fast that in 2019, he was named Argentina’s junior golfer of the year.
As the first LAAC champion to receive an invite to the Open Championship, Gallegos is uniquely prepared for links golf in tournament conditions even though most players from this region are unfamiliar with that style of play. That’s because he competed in the Junior Open Championship in St Andrews two years ago and did well enough to tie for fifth place.
After leading the tournament through 54 holes, José Vega shot 3-over-par 74 in the final round to come in third. That score included a three-putt bogey on the 18th hole that dropped the Colombian out what would have been a second-place tie with Mexico’s Aaron Terrazas, a finish that would have given Vega exemptions into sectional qualifying for this year's U.S. Open and final qualifying for the Open Championship.
The second-round 65 that Vega (above) shot turned out to be the low round of the tournament, and it was a beauty. After carding a birdie on the opening hole, he drained his approach on the par-4 third for an eagle 2. Vega proceeded to post three more birdies after that and 13 pars.
Fifty-two players from 20 countries made the cut, which came at 13-over par after 36 holes. Eight of the nine Chileans in the field moved on to weekend play, as did seven of the 11 competitors from the host nation of Mexico. They were joined by Rodrigo Sol Aguilar of El Salvador, who stood at 9 over after two rounds. That made him the first golfer from that Central American land to make the cut in the LAAC.
This year’s championship was staged on the El Camaleón Golf Club course at the sumptuous Mayakoba Resort on the so-called Maya Riviera south of Cancun. And it is a familiar one to those who follow the PGA Tour as the site of that circuit’s Mayakoba Golf Classic since 2007.
Designed by Greg Norman, the layout is known for the limestone canals that run through the property – and that border 10 holes. And more than anything else, it demands accuracy off the tee as well as an ability to flight the ball in the often fierce winds that blow off the Caribbean Sea.
“I played here a lot as a junior golfer, and we used to say that if you finished your round with the same ball that you started with, you probably shot under par,” said 22-year-old Terrazas of Mexico.
Next year’s Latin America Amateur will take place at the Lima Golf Club in Peru. The venue, which opened in 1924, is located in the center of the San Isidro neighborhood in that country’s capital. The course has been the site of the South America Amateur (in 2015) and was where the golf competition for the 2019 Pan Am Games was played. The par-71 track is known for its narrow fairways that wind through stands of tipa trees, and also for the views of Lima’s skyline that it affords players throughout a round.
Next January will mark the third time in seven years that the LAAC has been held in South America. That announcement was made during a press conference at last week’s tournament and greeted with cheers by a delegation from Lima Golf Club as they jumped up from their seats in the media center and held a Peruvian flag aloft.
As always, colleges from the United States had a strong presence in this championship, with 45 institutions represented in the 2020 field by current students or alumni. That bunch included a couple of Ivy League schools (Dartmouth, from which Jerónimo Esteve of Puerto Rico graduated in 2003) and Yale (where Mexico’s Gabriel Ruiz Treviño is now a freshman). Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., boasted the most players – Agustín Errázuriz (pictured), Toto Gana and Carlos Bustos of Chile, and Jorge Villar of Mexico – with Jacksonville State University close behind with two current students (Jesús Montenegro of Argentina and Patricio Freundt-Thurne of Peru) and one alumnus in Andrés Schönbaum of Argentina. Among other colleges with players here were Ohio University, Penn State, Texas Christian, Texas Tech and the universities of Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas and Florida.
While the best amateur golfers in the region were vying to win the LAAC and earn those coveted invitations to compete in this year’s Masters and Open Championship, a group of old pros of a different sort were putting on a show of their own on the Mayan Riviera.
That would be Dead & Company, which consists of three former members of the iconic Grateful Dead (guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) as well as guitarist John Mayer and bass player Oteil Burbridge. And while their three-night gig – dubbed “Playing in the Sand” - took place at a nearby beach resort, members of the band stayed at the same Mayakoba Resort where the LAAC was taking place – and were seen around the grounds on occasion.
Argentinian Schönbaum had perhaps the best line of the tournament when asked how tight this very tight golf course played off the tees. “There is a really thin line between going into the fairway and going into the jungle,” he said. … Lukas Roessler of Chile, the 15-year-old half brother of 2017 LAAC champion Gana, comported himself quite well in his first Latin America Amateur. He was tied for second place after 36 holes and eventually finished T9.