Ortiz's rapid, unlikely journey to the PGA Tour


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Carlos Ortiz’s journey to Silverado Resort’s 10th tee from Guadalajara, Mexico - via Denton, Texas - for Thursday's opening round of the Frys.com Open has been, by definition, meteoric.

Consider that at this time last year, the 23-year-old, who was named the 2014 Web.com Tour Player of the Year this week, was spending his days preparing for Web.com Q-School and had missed the cut in his lone significant professional start, something called the TransAmerican CRV Open on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica.

Now fast-forward to his debut as a card-carrying Tour member at the Frys.com Open, where he will be vying for part of a $6 million purse with the ultimate rookie trump card - fully exempt status via his three victories on the Web.com Tour in 2014.

It’s not exactly professional golf’s version of a rookie-league pitcher getting the call up to start Game 1 in the World Series, yet for all but the most tuned-in observers, the native of Mexico has emerged as a blue-chip prospect from the vast expanses of developmental golf’s gray areas.

But what makes Ortiz compelling among a rich crop of Tour rookies in 2014-15 is that he spent much of his senior season at the University of North Texas before turning pro last year, filling the role of the team’s No. 2 player, and he’s not even the best player to ever emerge from Guadalajara Country Club ... by a long shot.

That honor belongs to Lorena Ochoa, a future World Golf Hall of Famer who retired at 28 with 27 LPGA victories.

In spite of - or perhaps as a result of - those realities, Ortiz seems uniquely equipped to succeed where so many others have failed on the PGA Tour.

“I came out with low expectations,” Ortiz said late last month at the Web.com Tour Championship. “I didn’t know what to expect. I had never played professional golf before. My first tournament in Colombia, I was scared and didn’t know what would happen.”

Ortiz would finish third at the Colombia Championship to secure peace of mind, if not improved status on the Web.com Tour, and a month later would notch his first professional victory at the Panama Claro Championship.

“(Colombia) opened up my mind. I said, ‘Carlos, you can compete out here.’ I started believing in myself. Maybe I’m good enough to play the PGA Tour,” he said.

It was a similar psychological journey to the one Ortiz had to make when he arrived at North Texas, with equal parts potential and project.

At Ortiz’s first college event at the University of New Mexico, he struggled, admits North Texas golf coach Brad Stracke.

“His transition was kind of difficult from high school to college,” Stracke recalled. “He didn’t play very well in the U.S. as a junior. He was a little uncomfortable. He wasn’t very confident.”

As Stracke learned, Ortiz needed to find his way on his own terms and timetable. It was early in Ortiz’s freshman year that the coach talked to him about the importance of being structured on the course and needing a routine.

“I was talking to Carlos about his routine and he said he didn’t have one, so I let him go and do his thing. But he started listening and did much better after that,” Stracke said. “He’s smart enough to know that he needed to fail to get better. He learned from that and he had to learn to trust me.”

The following year, he won that same college event at New Mexico and posted the school’s lowest scoring average in 16 years. He evolved into an extremely consistent player and, along with teammate Rodolfo Cazaubon, would earn all-conference honors each of his four years in Denton.

Ortiz’s measured approach is similar to Ochoa’s, who he grew up idolizing and learning from at Guadalajara. Like many of the juniors at the club, Ochoa would challenge Ortiz to putting contests and, by default, introduced him to her no-nonsense style.

“Just like when I was little, I would practice with the older professionals and I would get so excited to be the best. And then when I was older, we would invite the little ones to practice with us,” Ochoa said. “He wanted to be the best and wanted to qualify for the [Tour]. We would close our eyes and I would tell him, ‘You will win on the PGA Tour and beat Tiger Woods if you make this putt.’”

As for those putting contests with the two-time major winner? “I’m sure at least one time I beat her,” Ortiz smiled.

The result of that unique understudy experience is a player with a potent combination of patience and competitive prowess.

He followed his maiden victory on the secondary circuit last season, at the Panama Claro, with another win two starts later, at the Mexico Championship, before lapsing into an almost predictable competitive swoon.

Ortiz earned more than two-thirds of his $515,000 in Web.com Tour winnings last season in three starts. In between, he missed four cuts in seven events through the dogs days of summer and arrived at the WinCo Foods Portland Open still one win shy of a promotion to the PGA Tour. He opened with rounds of 66 and 63 before hanging on over the weekend to secure his third title and his Tour card. 

“There were a lot of things going through my mind in the middle of the season. I wasn’t thinking correctly,” Ortiz admitted. “In Portland, it was much harder than I thought. I struggled early the final day, (but) I was proud of myself and that third win was big for me.”

Since that victory, he has methodically readied himself for what can often be a harsh transition to the PGA Tour. In May, at the urging of his manager, Ortiz spent a day at The Players.

“He spent all day there,” said Chance Cosby, Ping’s director of tournament player relations. “His manager brought him out to give him a feel for the PGA Tour and to meet some of the players.”

As expected, Ortiz is keeping himself grounded as prepares for his first full year on Tour, which makes sense considering he's had just one big-leaue start, a tie for 65th last season at the Memorial.

“I need to refocus and do what I did at the beginning of [2014] and just play my best,” he said. “The only thing that changes are the names on the leaderboard.”

But then that’s not exactly true for Ortiz, who despite his fast-track journey to Silverado and the PGA Tour will have to make one key adjustment as he continues his climb. Thanks to his three wins on the Web.com Tour, he is no longer playing the supporting-actor role.