Chaplet earns Masters berth with gutsy LAAC win


LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic – With a memorable performance this week at the Latin America Amateur Championship, Paul Chaplet hoped to persuade a few more college coaches to take a leap of faith, to extend the 832nd-ranked amateur in the world a scholarship to play in the U.S.

Prior to this week, only four coaches had sent the 16-year-old senior-to-be an offer.

There should be plenty more now.

With gut-check pars on three of the last four holes, Chaplet emerged from the Teeth of the Dog’s brutal closing stretch with his lead intact, his 2-under 70 in windy conditions good enough for a dramatic one-shot victory Sunday over Venezuela’s Jorge Garcia.

When Garcia’s 10-footer to tie missed low, Chaplet wrapped his arms around fellow Costa Rican Alvaro E. Ortiz, his 47-year-old mentor and frequent championship nemesis.

“I’m so proud,” Ortiz whispered into his ear.

Around and around they spun in the clubhouse, their eyes welling with tears, until a tournament official stepped in and ushered them back toward the 18th green. After spotting countryman Jose Mendez and fill-in caddie Andres Russi near the manual scoreboard, the normally reserved Chaplet took off on a dead sprint. During the group hug he was doused with a bottle of Cool Heaven water – fitting, for this title sent Chaplet to the 80th Masters, as well as the final stage of qualifying at both the U.S. Open and Open Championship. He’ll be the first Costa Rican to play at Augusta National, and, at 16 years, 8 months and 29 days, the second-youngest participant in history.

“A child’s dream, really,” he said afterward.

Starting the final round four shots behind Gaston Bertinotti of Argentina, Chaplet ripped off three birdies in his first eight holes to pass the leaders. His most important shot was his third at the par-5 14th, the last gettable hole at the Teeth of the Dog. Long and left of the green, he played his chip shot perfectly, bumping his ball into the bank and winding up with a tap-in birdie to regain the outright lead.

Of course, this was the same position he enjoyed a day earlier, only he imploded coming home: A 4-iron into the water on 15 led to a triple; a snap hook off the tee on 17 that could (and probably should) have led to a score worse than bogey; and a gutsy 8-footer for par on the last just to salvage an under-par total.

Yet Chaplet’s only mistake Sunday came on the par-3 16th, which was playing into a brutal hook wind, with the Caribbean Sea to the right and bunkers all down the left side. His tee shot rode the wind and landed in the back bunker, leaving a particularly daunting shot, given the stakes: With just a one-shot cushion, he needed to clear another bunker but stay short of the water that loomed over the back. Deciding to limit the damage, he smartly splashed out short of the green, then did well to two-putt for bogey. Routine pars on the last two holes set a 3-under target.

Tied for the lead in the 17th fairway, Garcia, a freshman at Florida with a sparkling amateur record, was in between clubs and pushed his 8-iron into the greenside bunker. Unable to get up and down for par, he needed to hole a last-gasp 10-footer for birdie on 18 to force a playoff, but he opened the blade and shoved it right, a familiar refrain during the final day. About 100 yards away, the celebration was already underway in the clubhouse.

“There’s no way I could have lost this tournament putting just OK,” Garcia said.

He wasn’t the only contender who left paradise frustrated.

George Trujillo climbed within a shot of the lead, only to play the last three holes in 3 over.

Alejandro Tosti, the runner-up from a year ago who was back in the final group, shot 74 and didn’t factor on the back nine.

Nicolas Echavarria, the 36-hole leader, posted a second consecutive 77, which included a back-nine 42 Sunday.

Yet none of that compared to the travails of Bertinotti, the overnight leader. Unable to sleep Saturday night, he went for a walk at 2 a.m. to clear his head. He finally fell asleep at 3 and conked out until 8:30, when he was finally stirred by a text from his national coach:

Where are you?

Bertinotti had overslept for his 9:28 tee time, and he rushed to the range for an abbreviated warm-up session. Perhaps not surprisingly, he went out in 40 and carded a final-round 77, ultimately tying for sixth.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with it,” he said of his hurried start. “It was a tough day for everybody. Others just did a better job of controlling themselves than I did.”

That it was Chaplet who emerged victorious might have been the biggest surprise.

Of the 4.6 million people in Costa Rica, only an estimated 3,500 are golfers. There are 11 courses, though fortuitously, Chaplet’s home club, Valle del Sol, is only a 10-minute drive from his family’s home.  

He started to play only six years ago, so he could keep up with his mother and sister. The hook was set early. Oftentimes, he would wake at 6 a.m. to practice with his friends, then go to school and play again until dark. Sleepovers usually included eight or nine kids from the Costa Rican Golf Federation, because they wanted to eat, sleep and play golf together.

“They are a small community,” said Rodrigo Cordero, the vice president of the federation.  

Success has been slow and steady, and most of Chaplet’s titles have come when he handed Ortiz a loss in the stroke- and match-play championships in Costa Rica. Over the past few years, Ortiz has been instrumental in Chaplet’s development, showing him how to travel, teaching him how to handle pressure and adversity, offering tips on equipment and fitness.

“It’s really nice,” Ortiz said, “when it all works out how you plan and think about for what you’d like to see in the future.”

Chaplet’s future has never seemed so promising.

Despite a few high finishes in the States – a U.S. Kids Championship in the 15-18 age division, a seventh-place showing at the Junior Worlds, a few spot starts on the AJGA – Chaplet has been lightly recruited by college golf coaches.

Chaplet said that four schools have extended offers so far, but Minnesota’s assistant coach, Justin Smith, was here all week, in the school’s bright yellow polo, cheering on fellow Costa Rican Mendez and keeping tabs on Chaplet.

“The phone is going to be ringing, the emails are going to be coming,” Ortiz said. “It’s going to be overwhelming, and he’s going to need to organize himself and analyze what’s coming up.”

Most imminent, of course, is the Masters, a tournament that – showing his age here – he said he first watched four years ago, in 2012, when Bubba Watson won his first green jacket.

In his winner’s news conference, Chaplet was asked who would be on his bag that week.

“I think my caddie is sitting right here somewhere,” he said with a smile, pointing at Russi, his childhood friend who had agreed to loop for the final round here because he knew Chaplet’s game so well.

Expectations for the Masters will be low, but that’s to be expected after a performance that changed everything and surprised many, even those who know his game best.

“I came into this tournament knowing I had a chance if I played my best golf, and this just proves to me that I can,” Chaplet said. “That’s really all that matters.”