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  • Alistair Tait

A blow for Latin American golf

Amateur golf doesn’t get as much coverage as it once did. Not in an age when every move Tiger Woods makes has to be tracked, even if he’s finishing at the bottom of fields he once dominated. So the news that next year’s Latin America Amateur Championship has been cancelled probably won’t make many headlines.

Pity, because it’s a big loss for the development of golf in Central and South America.

The LAAC was to have been played at Lima Golf Club, Peru from 14-17 January. The tournament has had to be cancelled due to the ongoing mess that is Covid-19. Like many countries, the virus has hammered the land of the Incas.

The powers that run golf often come in for a lot of criticism. Sometimes justifiably given the time it takes them to address certain issues – grooves, anchoring, distance, etc. – but sometimes simply because they’re an easy target. They deserve a lot of credit for setting up the LAAC. The tournament is helping grow the game in a region where growth is much needed.

The press release to announce the LAAC cancellation explains why the tournament was set up in the first place.

“Founded in 2014 by the Masters Tournament, The R&A and the USGA, the LAAC was established to further develop amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The event annually moves to top courses throughout Latin America and showcases the sport’s rising talent in the region.”

It’s a talent pool that, by and large, has remained virtually untapped for a long time. Latin America has produced just two male major winners, both from Argentina. Roberto de Vicenzo won the 1967 Open Championship, while Angel Cabrera owns a U.S. Open winner's medal (2007) and a gaudy Masters green jacket (2009). Lorena Ochoa is the only woman from Latin America to win major championships. The Mexican won two majors – the 2007 Ricoh Women’s British Open and 2008 Kraft Nabisco Championship – before retiring from the game.

Seventeen-year-old Abel Gallegos won this year’s LAAC. The Argentinean is still waiting to play in the Masters and Open Championship at Royal St George’s, the rewards that come with winning the prestigious title.

Ochoa’s compatriot Alvaro Ortiz won the 2019 LAAC. He went on to become the first Mexican to play in the Masters since 1979. He played all four rounds, finishing runner up to Viktor Hovland in the race to finish low amateur.

Joaquin Niemann of Chile won the 2018 LAAC when he was world amateur number one. He played in the 2019 Presidents Cup and made PGA Tour history that year by becoming the first Chilean to win a PGA Tour event, A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier.

Aside from De Vicenzo, Cabrera and Niemann, other Latin Americans have found success on the PGA Tour. Last year, Sebastian Munoz followed in the footsteps of Columbian compatriot Camilo Villegas (pictured) when he won the Sanderson Farms Championship. Munoz finished in a tie for eighth in this year's PGA Tour play-offs. Villegas has four PGA Tour victories, including the 2008 Tour Championship.

The European Tour has been blessed with South Americans like Argentinians Cabrera, Eduardo Romero, Andres Romero and Ricardo Gonzalez, Chileans such as Felipe Aguilar, Fabrizio Zanotti of Paraguay and others. However, like the PGA Tour, it’s been more of a trickle than a flood.

Of course, unearthing South American talent is hard for the same reason it’s difficult in other parts of the world. Golf is an expensive game in a region where poverty is sometimes hard to miss. That’s why initiatives like the LAAC deserve much credit. Hopefully the event gets back on track once this coronavirus nightmare ends.

#JustSaying: “Golf is like love. One day you think you’re too old, and the next you can’t wait to do it again.” Roberto de Vicenzo

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