CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA | Abel Gallegos is one of the few amateurs in the world who can say 2020 was unforgettable for positive reasons, and now he is on his way to making 2021 the same.
The 19-year-old Argentinian – winner of the last January’s Latin America Amateur Championship that got him into this past fall’s Masters and the upcoming Open Championship in July – earned his first victory on U.S. soil by fighting past Noah Steele in the Azalea Invitational on Sunday at the Country Club of Charleston.
“I didn’t hit it perfectly the first three days, but the last day went really well and thank God it was today where I did my best,” Gallegos said through an interpreter. “We didn’t make any bogeys, which is hard to do on this course.”
Gallegos shot 3-under 68 in the final round, reaching 6-under 278 for the tournament to win by three strokes. However, that margin of victory wasn’t at all indicative of how close the proceedings were throughout the day as Gallegos and Steele were fully engaged in a two-horse race.
Steele, a Canadian southpaw who recently graduated from Sam Houston State University north of Houston, Texas, held a two-stroke advantage through seven holes in cold and blustery conditions on the classic Seth Raynor course before aggressively opting for a driver on the short par-4 eighth hole. He found a small bush left of the fairway and made bogey as momentum swung to Gallegos, who went on to birdie the par-5 ninth to tie Steele as they headed for the back nine.
The sequence that would define the tournament came between the 11th and 16th holes. Steele hit his tee shot on the par-3 11th short of a gargantuan ridge and did well to make bogey while Gallegos saved par from a greenside bunker that was nearly 10 feet below the surface of the green. Two holes later, Steele hit an approach at the par-4 13th to tap-in range for birdie while Gallegos left himself with a par putt outside 10 feet. He made it to avoid the two-shot swing and put the pair in a tie with five holes remaining.
The shot that may have won Gallegos the tournament came on the par-4 14th. After hitting his wedge approach over the green, he calmly chipped in for birdie and grabbed a lead he would never relinquish.
“The chip-in was really important because it was at the breaking point of the tournament,” Gallegos said.
On the par-5 15th, Gallegos found trouble off the tee and scrambled to save his par while Steele hit the green in two shots but left his first putt well short and had to settle for a par to remain one stroke back. A hole later, Steele pulled his approach right of the green and had an awkward angle for his third, leading to a bogey that pushed the Gallegos lead to two strokes.
Once Gallegos found the green on the par-3 17th and Steele missed short into a greenside bunker, the tournament was all but over.
Unlike many South Americans, Gallegos has no plans to play college golf. He shot 79-81 to miss the cut at the Masters but played a practice round with Rory McIlroy and says he gained a great deal of experience from his first major appearance. One of the most noticeable parts of his game is that he takes aggressive lines off the tee and often can be seen with a driver in his hands even if the hole doesn’t necessarily call for it.
“The driver is my favorite club in the bag, so I am always happy to hit it,” Gallegos said.
Gallegos will play in the Terra Cotta Invitational next month in Naples, Florida, and then will head to Europe for a month before the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s so he can get used to playing links golf.