PANAMA CITY, Panama – The youngest player in the field sits on top of the leaderboard in Panama after rewriting some record books, including his own.
With a first-round 6-under 64, 17-year-old Julian Perico of Peru leads the Latin America Amateur Championship by one over Guatemala's Alejandro Villavicencio through at 18 holes at Panama Golf Club.
Perico on Thursday set the record for the lowest round (64) and the lowest nine (6-under 29) in LAAC history. His 29 also tied the mark for a low nine at Panama Golf Club, set multiple times on the Web.com Tour.
“I was hitting the ball pretty bad on the range,” he said, smiling.
Most satisfying of all, Perico set a new personal record.
“This is the first time I broke 5 under in my life,” he said. “I haven’t shot 6 under or less, not even in practice rounds, nothing. A year ago exactly, I was in Puerto Rico playing [an AJGA event], and I was 7 under with three to play … and I shot 5 under.”
Starting on the back, Perico got off to a hot start when he made an unlikely opening birdie at No. 10. After pushing his drive into the trees, he hit “like a stinger of something” that came to rest 7 feet from the hole.
Perico made a nervy par at 11 before settling in and making four straight birdies on Nos. 12-15. He added one more at 18 to turn in 6 under.
He dropped his only shots of the day at the par-4 second when he pulled the wrong club and sent his approach shot sailing over the green.
At first, “I couldn’t find it,” he said. “Suddenly a girl comes over and goes, ‘Oh, here’s your ball.’ She grabbed it. ‘I’m like what are you doing?’
Perico replaced the ball, went on to make double, but then immediately bounced back with birdies at 3 and 4. Four pars later, he was one hole from 6 under.
“Today, I was like, ‘OK, just break 5 under. Like, you have one hole to play, just break it. And I got up and down for 64.”
Perico is currently enrolled at the Bishop’s Gate Golf Academy in Howie-in-the-Hills, Fla., outside Orlando, and is committed to play college golf for USF starting in 2018. Last year, he won the Peruvian Junior Amateur Championship and represented his country at the World Amateur Team Championship. But he’ll be the first to admit he’s never been a part of an event like this.
“Yeah, this is by the far the best tournament I’ve played in my life,” he said.
And yet that hasn’t stopped him from tinkering with both his swing path and his putting grip in the lead-up to the tournament. The putting grip is particularly unusual, with an interlock grip, three fingers cupping his wrist, and a big forward press.
Those tweaks have Perico in the early lead in Panama, and in the mix for a spot at the Masters.
“I like the idea of going to the Masters if you win,” he said. “It’s the biggest prize someone could get on Earth, right? But we’ve got three rounds to play. There are so many good players here, and most of them are friends of mine. I just go out there and have fun, really.”