PANAMA CITY, Panama – Chile's Toto Gana stood 99 yards from the pin at the par-4 10th hole at Panama Golf Club.
He had watched his best friend Joaquin Niemann miss into the greenside bunker on the left and Alvaro Ortiz miss long and to the right, some 40 feet from the flag.
Playing his second extra hole, with a 52-degree wedge in his hand, Gana said to himself: “Well, this is my chance.”
He choked down, took aim at the front pin position – just a few paces onto the green above a severe slope leading back to the water – and “let it flow.”
That flow flew to about 3 feet.
“It was the best shot [of my life], at the best time,” he’d recall later, having just signed his name to a Masters flag.
Gana went on to make that short birdie putt to defeat Niemann and Ortiz in a three-way playoff on Sunday and win the Latin America Amateur Championship.
With the victory, Gana, the second-ranked Chilean amateur but 285th-ranked player in the world amateur rankings, earned exemptions into the U.S. Amateur, the Amateur Championship, sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, and Final Qualifying for the Open Championship.
But most importantly, the 19-year-old just secured an invitation to Augusta National in April.
“Two days ago, I was nobody,” Gana said, holding his trophy. “Now I'm going to play the Masters.”
Gana looked as if he was going wrap up that invite a lot sooner than he did. Following up-and-downs from greenside bunkers on both 15 and 16, he walked to the par-3 17th two ahead with two to play. But Ortiz and Niemann immediately responded with birdies at 17, and Gana went long over the green at the 72nd hole after finding a fairway bunker off the tee. When his downhill pitch from the rough came up a good 15 feet short, Gana had a putt for par to win the tournament.
It didn’t drop, but he didn’t get down on himself either.
“I wasn't so frustrated,” he said. “The only thing I wanted to do was go on and play the next holes and be as enthused as possible."
He looked as if he might be the first player eliminated when he missed his drive well to left in the trees on the first playoff hole. But Gana punched out to an opening in front of the green and played a quality pitch to a few feet, leaving his friend Niemann smiling and shaking his head. Unlike on his first trip down 18, he converted the par save and all three players walked to the 10th tee.
Gana then gripped down and rifled a 3-wood down the middle to his spot in the fairway, 99 yards away. Two shots later, men in green jackets were walking onto the green to congratulate him.
“This is a very new experience for me,” he said. “I've never felt this feeling in my body before. Really, it's incredible. I don't want it to end.”
Gana’s easy-going personality no doubt played a role in his victory, and may well help him when he gets to Augusta in April. The bigger the stage, the more fun he seems to have.
“I didn't feel any kind of pressure,” he said. “I really love the [television] cameras. When the people started arriving, I said, ‘Oh, this is so cool, I hope more people come. It was perfect just to say, ‘Well, here I am.’ That's the most important. I love it. I didn’t feel nervous at all.”
Sunday will likely prove a career-changing experience for Gana, who came into the week largely unheralded, especially in comparison with his friend and runner-up Niemann, the fifth-ranked amateur in the world, who stole a microphone during Gana’s press conference and asked his friend to answer a question in his Donald Duck voice (Gana does a spot-on impression, by the way).
“I believe he deserves it 100 percent, all the sacrifice he makes,” Niemann said. “I am very happy for him and I'm waiting for next year so I can have my revenge or my chance.”
Niemann pulled his approach at the second playoff hole into the greenside bunker, where it buried into the sand. He managed to blast out across the green, but his lengthy par putt from the apron missed the hole.
Niemann walked across the green in frustration, but then quickly turned around to watch his friend putt for a spot in the Masters. His expression changed almost instantly, from looking angry and disappointed to looking like he was going to personally will Gana’s ball into the hole.
“Toto made a wonderful shot,” Niemann said. “It was almost a gimmie. Yes, after I took it out of the bunker, I said, ‘OK, well, that's it. That's the end of it.’ There wasn't anything I could do at that point. There was no going back. But I was able to enjoy watching my friend with a 3-foot putt to go to the Masters. When he made it, I felt really happy and proud for him.”
Caddying for Niemann this week in Panama was Eduardo Michel, who just so happens to coach both Niemann and Gana in Chile. What was it like to walk with two of his protégés on Sunday as they played for an invite to Augusta?
“It was amazing, a dream,” Michel answered. “I would have been happy for either one of them. Every time they would finish a hole, I was cheering them and congratulating them.”
Michel has been working with Gana for the last six years in Chile, and offered an honest assessment of his game and a revealing take about what makes Gana different from his peers.
“I have always believed that he was a very good player,” Michel said. “I have other players in my academy who are maybe better and have more talent, for example, Joaquin. But there is no other student wants to be good, that really works to be good, more than [Toto].”
To that point, almost exactly 24 hours before holing that final putt, Gana was asked on Saturday what he thought he had in his game that would propel him to a win.
“I think my biggest trait is in my head,” he answered. “I’m not a long hitter. I don’t hit my irons quite well, either. But I keep myself focused. I play with my heart. I play with a lot of grit. I fight it until the end.”
On Sunday, Gana did. And he was the one who ended it.