Best friends Gana, Niemann face off for LAAC title

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PANAMA CITY, Panama - Most everyone who plays golf has a group of friends with whom they regularly play, and for the most part, the stakes are predictably low.

You know, lunch, a $5 Nassau, maybe a couple beers, a half-gallon iced tea at a Wawa - not an invite to the Masters.

But on Sunday, two best friends, Chile's Toto Gana and Joaquin Niemann, will do exactly that.

Through 54 holes at Panama Golf Club, Gana shares the 2-under lead with Mexico's Carlos Ortiz. One behind, Niemann, the World Amateur Golf Ranking No. 5 and the highest-ranked player in the field, will join them in the final group.

So just how close are they? Gana, 19, and Niemann, 18, have known each other for the last six years. They say they spend eight hours a day together, seven days a week, working out of the Golf Club La Dehesa and Hacienda Santa Martina in Santiago with their shared coach, Eduardo Michel. When they aren't playing golf, they share the bulk of their free at time one another's houses. They've even spent holidays together.

"Toto is one of my best, if not my very best friend. ... We do almost everything together," Niemann said Saturday from the seat Gana had occupied just moments earlier. "We are going to try to enjoy the last round of this great event. We have our coach with us. It has to be one more day where I am relaxed. I can't afford to be so pressured tomorrow. And we want to have a good time, that's the idea."

For his part, Gana, whose firm handshake comes with an even firmer slap on the back, doesn't mind the pressure. He's thriving under the spotlight.

"I've never played in front of cameras before," he said. "They can go around me, in front of me, behind me, I don't care. I love them."

Given how close they are, being together on Sunday will likely bring a sense of normalcy to a decidedly abnormal set of circumstances. First place comes with the aforementioned trip to the Masters, and exemptions into the U.S. Amateur, the Amateur Championship, sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open and Final Qualifying for the Open Championship. They'll also have the satisfaction of playing for Chile, which will host the LAAC next year.

Asked again about everything on the line Sunday, Niemann had an idea: "Maybe we'll bet 10 dollars so we don't have to think so much about the Masters."