After watching Chaplet, Ortiz eyes Augusta return

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PANAMA CITY, Panama – Last year in the Dominican Republic, when Jorge Garcia’s putt to tie missed the hole, Paul Chaplet won the 2016 Latin America Amateur Championship and wrapped his arms around his mentor, Alvaro E. Ortiz.

The night before, at the Costa Rican team dinner, Ortiz had joked with his protégé Chaplet that, “We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but, but, if you get lucky, and you play well, and you win, the first packages of tickets to the tournament are going to be ours.”

Ortiz kept his word, and spent the week at Augusta National last April, watching Chaplet become the first Costa Rican to ever play the Masters.

One year later, he is 36 holes from becoming the second.

After rounds of 71-66, Ortiz, 48, leads by one stroke at 3 under par over Guatemala's Alejandro Villavicencio and Brazil's Herik Machado. After hitting only three greens in regulation Thursday, Ortiz poured in five birdies against a single bogey on Friday.

To call Ortiz a dominant force in Costa Rican golf would be like calling grass a dominant surface in golf. He has won the Costa Rican Amateur 25 times. He’s also a six-time Central America Amateur champion.

A former pro, Ortiz spent 10 years on the South American Tour and the Tour de las Americas from 1994-2004. Reinstated as an amateur, he now works as a real estate agent, plays golf on Saturdays, and serves as an advisor to Costa Rica’s Minister of Sports, doing his best to raise the game’s profile in his homeland.

“People still don’t understand what [Chaplet] accomplished,” Ortiz said. “People don’t understand. People come up to me, ‘Hey what did he win and what is the Masters?’ And I say, ‘Well, OK, let’s put this way: He won the right to play Wimbeldon if he would be a tennis player.”

Ortiz had set a fairly reasonable goal to start the week – he wanted to be, for the third year in a row, the oldest player to make the cut. But he may have to adjust his expectations.

He’s now in the mix for a return trip to Augusta National, only this time, he wouldn’t be watching.

“When you see the tournament over the years and see everything that has happened over there,” Ortiz said, “and you see your idols over there, and you imagine things that you saw on TV while you’re there, it can be dramatic. It can be exciting. It can sentimental.

“Then watching the Costa Rican flag on the main leaderboard to the right of the first hole was very emotional. And watching Paul walk down the fairway with Mark O’Meara the first two rounds, it’s hard to believe. Watching the kid I saw grow up and watching him play the Masters was like a dream. It was for him and it was for me.”

While Ortiz would love to make his own memories at Augusta, he’s not putting much pressure on himself. Unlike kids in the field less than half his age - Machado (19) and first-round leader Julian Perico (17, 1-under par), for example - Ortiz says he has other priorities in life, and that golf is at this stage in his life is secondary. The same smile he wore after his 66 will be the same smile he wears after a 76.

Rather than dream about hoisting the trophy on Sunday, he’s talking about the blisters on his feet and countering that he just wants to make it to Sunday.

But after hearing him describe what it was like to walk down the 10th hole at Augusta last year, what it was like to watch Tom Watson play his final Masters, it’s easy to see how much another Costa Rican flag on the leaderboard would mean to him.