LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic – Santiago Casado was all smiles Thursday as he huddled with his team behind the ninth green at Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog course.
And why not? This Latin America Amateur Championship couldn’t have started much better.
Four of the Mexican players in the field were inside the top seven on the leaderboard, including Alvaro Ortiz, the brother of PGA Tour player Carlos Ortiz, whose opening 4-under 68 shared the early lead with Jose Andres Miranda of Ecuador.
“The players did an extraordinary job,” Casado said. “We’re in position and the players are prepared to contend.”
That means Casado, the national team manager for the Mexican Golf Federation, has done his job.
Golf in Mexico is more of a team effort than an individual pursuit. Juniors begin by playing in regional tournaments all across the country, then graduate to national events when their game is ready. A decade ago, the Mexican Junior Golf Association partnered with the AJGA, the premier junior golf organization in the U.S., after voicing concerns that its players were at a disadvantage in trying to gain exposure for college golf scholarships. As part of that arrangement, some of the top Mexican juniors earned exemptions into AJGA tournaments – which are heavily attended by college golf coaches – based on high finishes in select local events.
“If you want to become one of the best players in the world and want to play on the PGA Tour, you have to go to the U.S. to play college golf,” Casado said. “It’s where you want to be to compete in amateur events – that’s the best opportunity to compete every single week with the best in the world.”
Casado’s main role with the Mexican Golf Federation is to recruit, train and prepare his eight-man roster for college and, later, a professional career. He is concerned less about his players’ technique and more about infusing them with confidence and self-belief.
That cerebral approach doesn’t change once they arrive on a college campus, either. Rather than point to any technical changes with their swing, the players said that they’ve most improved their course management while in college.
“Ten years ago, we thought that coming to America was having a lesson with top-100 coaches in the world,” Casado said. “They’re proving themselves that it’s part of the process: Respect where you come from. Never lose track of your family and friends. Believe in your country and culture. Those are the aspects that we are following, and then just enjoy the ride.”
Seven of his eight players are currently in college, playing on scholarship at Arkansas, Tennessee, New Mexico State, Jacksonville and Louisiana-Lafayette; the eighth player, Roberto Ruiz Gonzalez, recently exhausted his eligibility at the University of Texas-El Paso. Naturally, that creates a friendly rivalry among the players as they keep track of their teammates’ high finishes and world ranking.
“Once we come here, though, we feel like a family,” said Raul Pereda de la Huerta, a sophomore at Jacksonville. “We’re like brothers.”
The most heralded Mexican amateur is Ortiz, a sophomore at Arkansas.
After all, it was his brother, Carlos, 24, who gave the Mexican Golf Federation a boost after a four-year career at North Texas and a breakout year on the Web.com Tour, when he won three times in 2014 and earned Player of the Year honors.
Said Casado: “He has proven to all of these young talented players that if you stick to the process and trust the work every single day, you can make the dream of playing on the PGA Tour.”
Having a Tour-caliber sibling may ratchet up expectations, but Ortiz views it more as an opportunity to measure his own game.
“Being able to say that when I beat him, I beat a PGA Tour player, it’s a good feeling,” he said. “But it’s a healthy competition. It’s more about pride than anything.”
Ortiz, who finished fourth in this event last year after a closing 67, is looking to become the first Mexican amateur in more than a half-century to play in the Masters. Huerta (69), Fernando Cruz Valle (70) and Arkansas commit Luis Garza (70) are all in strong position after Day 1, too.
A victory here wouldn’t just be an incredible individual accomplishment. It’d also be a testament to Casado’s process, to the team-first attitude that permeates this group.
“We realize the impact of winning this event,” Casado said. “The most important thing for our players, and part of our problem, is the pride of representing your country. You can see it in the way they dress, and all of their families are here. It’s not only a big individual event, but it’s a big feeling of playing for your country.”