LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic – The PGA Tour’s Sony Open isn’t the only tournament this week offering an invitation to the Masters.
That’s also the ultimate prize here at the second annual Latin America Amateur Championship, which begins Thursday at Pete Dye’s spectacular Teeth of the Dog course at Casa de Campo Resort.
Created by Augusta National Golf Club, the R&A and USGA, this 109-man, 72-hole stroke-play tournament follows the blueprint for the Asia-Pacific Amateur, which was designed to provide an avenue for aspiring golfers in parts of the world where the sport isn’t as popular. Since 2009, that tournament has produced such winners as Hideki Matsuyama (twice) and Guan Tianlang, both of whom made the cut at the Masters as amateurs.
The world-class resort, corporate backing and first-rate amenities – a players’ game room! – have already elevated the LAAC into a must-play for many of the top amateurs from South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Of course, dangling that Masters carrot – as well as exemptions into the final stage of qualifying for both the U.S. Open and Open Championship – will always help boost participation.
“The prize at the end of the road is quite appealing,” said 25-year-old Argentine Matias Simaski, “so for me it became one of the three most important amateur events in the world.”
Each country in the region, 29 in all, is represented with at least two participants. The World Amateur Golf Ranking is used to fill out the rest of the field, with Argentina, Chile and Mexico with eight players apiece.
Unlike the U.S. Amateur, which in recent years has been overrun with college players, the LAAC field is a mix of players who are either on scholarship in the States or trying to carve out their own path in their home country.
At No. 34 in the WAGR, Juan Alvarez of Uruguay is the highest-ranked player in the field. (There are seven top-100 players overall.) The 22-year-old reinstated amateur posted a top-20 at this event last year, after a closing 78, and recently earned a runner-up finish at the PGA Tour Latinoamerica’s Argentina Open.
“I believe that I’m more prepared this year,” he said through a translator.
The two protagonists from last year’s tournament are back for another run at the title.
Defending champion Matias Dominguez, who won by a shot at Pilar Golf Club in Argentina, went on to miss the cut at the Masters (76-76). After completing his degree from Texas Tech last month, he intends to stay amateur for the foreseeable future to focus on other interests.
Two years ago, he took a semester-long class in Lubbock called “Building Winning Teams,” which brought together the captains from all 15 sports in the school’s athletic department. The goal was for Dominguez to develop all of the tools to be an effective leader and then empower his teammates to reach their potential.
Instead, “that changed my path,” he said.
Dominguez, 23, has plans to create a leadership program in Santiago and also assist the Chilean Golf Federation. Those are the projects he is passionate about. The pro game can wait, perhaps forever.
But for this week, at least, Dominguez is a star, his face plastered on all of the pre-tournament promotional materials. He’s popular among his peers, too, and for good reason.
“How was the Masters? That’s the most common question,” he said, smiling.
Memories of that experience remain vivid – the exhilaration of finding the invitation in the mail, the kindness of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Zach Johnson on the range, the roar from his hole-in-one during the Par-3 Contest.
“That was my whole week already,” he said.
The past year was more traumatic for LAAC runner-up Alejandro Tosti, now a sophomore at Florida.
The 19-year-old Argentine was the only player in the field to break par all four rounds last year, but he missed a 4-footer on the 71st hole and failed to capitalize when Dominguez made bogey on the last.
“It was really hard for me,” he said. “After that moment, (I realized) I was trying to make everything perfect, and I found that things happen and they are never going to be perfect. So you have to expect them to not be perfect and just live with that and try your best.”
Turns out his freshman year with the Gators was far from perfect, too, as he adjusted to college life with new friends, new responsibilities and a new schedule with his family some 16 hours away. He never felt more alone than last spring, when a tooth infection began to cause headaches, sweating, vomiting, fatigue and light sensitivity during a practice round with two-time major champion Angel Cabrera.
Later, doctors found that Tosti was suffering from encephalitis, and he was hospitalized and hooked up to a catheter for nine days. After being released, he administered the IV fluids himself for the next 20 days. Florida’s best player missed the team’s surprising run at NCAA regionals, which culminated in its first championship berth under new coach J.C. Deacon.
Now fully healthy, Tosti concedes: “I was lucky.”
This week, the goal for Tosti, and the rest of the field, is to earn that invitation to the Masters, a dream that for many never seemed possible until a few years ago.
“When I was a little boy, one time I was watching the Masters on TV and I said, ‘One day I want to play at Augusta,’” Alvarez said. “I found out there was going to be a tournament where you could play at Augusta, and here we are. We are going to try our best.”