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Bertinotti 18 holes from LAAC win, Masters berth

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LA ROMANA, Dominican Republican – Simmering with frustration after each missed putt down the stretch, Gaston Bertinotti unleashed a torrent of fist pumps Saturday when his 25-footer dropped on the final green.  

The Argentine’s main challenge Sunday will be keeping his emotions in check – after all, it’s only the most important round of his life.

In what likely was a preview for a nervy, dramatic final round at Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog course, Bertinotti limited his mistakes and shot a third-round 69 to take a one-shot lead over Jorge Garcia at the Latin America Amateur Championship. Alejandro Tosti is another shot behind.

“It’s awesome to be in the lead right now,” Bertinotti said, “but we still have to play 18 more holes.”

And with all that’s on the line – an invitation to the Masters, spots in final qualifying for the U.S. Open and Open Championship, global recognition – it figures to be a restless night in paradise.

Saturday’s action showed that no lead is safe at the Pete Dye masterpiece that is only growing firmer and faster by the hour.

Nicolas Echavarria, who took a three-shot lead heading into the weekend, gave it all back with a pulled tee shot into the rocks on the par-3 seventh. He plummeted out of the lead after the triple bogey, and he dropped two more shots coming home for a third-round 77. He is now three back.

“There’s still a chance,” he said, “so you have to be positive about it. Eighteen more holes to play the Masters.”

Costa Rica’s Paul Chaplet surged into the lead with a tap-in eagle on 14, but the second-youngest player in the field (16) made a few poor decisions coming home, dropping four shots in the last four holes to sit four shots behind.

Chaplet’s critical miscue came with his tee shot on the par-4 15th. With the tee moved up, plenty of room left and the Caribbean Sea on the right, he made a “brain mistake” by taking an aggressive line off the tee with a 4-iron. His ball never had a chance to clear the hazard, leading to a triple bogey. Two holes later, he hit a screaming hook off the tee and seemed destined for another big number, but his ball ricocheted off a tree near the out-of-bounds stakes and he escaped with a bogey.

Playing with fellow countryman Alvaro E. Ortiz, who was openly rooting for his protégé despite a miserable third round, Chaplet curled in an 8-footer for par on the last to stay in the hunt. He walked off the green arm in arm with Ortiz.  

“I haven’t shot 82 in a long time,” Ortiz said afterward, “but it didn’t really feel too bad watching him play.”

Even with a cold putter, Garcia climbed the leaderboard Saturday with a 3-under 69, the lone bogey-free round and one of only five sub-70 scores.

“Today the golf course showed you can get eaten by it,” he said.  

The Venezuelan is arguably the most accomplished player in the field, and last month he won the South Beach International Amateur in his adopted hometown of Miami. Garcia, a freshman at Florida, was 9 when his home club, Los Chaguaramos, closed because of government politics. Three years later, he moved in with his aunt and cousin in the Magic City to pursue a golf career.

Garcia soon piled up junior titles and became one of the country’s top prospects, a stark contrast to the early career of Bertinotti, a late bloomer who was more interested in rugby than golf until the age of 13.

He started playing to beat his friends and finished last in his first national tournament. Still, the game “came to me pretty quick,” he said, a nod to his training at Las Delicias Campo de Golf in Argentina.

Bertinotti is from Cordoba, the same hometown of two-time major winner Angel Cabrera and PGA Tour player Andres Romero.

It was Romero who suggested that Bertinotti take a few deep breaths on the course whenever he felt nervous. Apparently, he was inhaling so loudly earlier this week that he drew the attention of one of his fellow playing competitors.

“I’m just trying to keep calm,” he said.

Indeed, Sunday’s final round figures to be as much a mental test as a physical examination.

Three of the last four holes are the toughest on the course, with the Caribbean Sea in play on both the drives and approach shots, and the pressure to win one of the biggest amateur titles in the world can be suffocating.

“All that pressure,” Bertinotti said, “it will show who is the best. It’s all about controlling your feelings. Everybody has emotions – you just have to try to keep them calm.”