Chile's Gana fought to the end, and he ended it

By Nick MentaJanuary 15, 2017, 11:15 pm

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.

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Gooch chooses 'life over a good lie' with gators nearby

By Ryan LavnerApril 26, 2018, 11:31 pm

AVONDALE, La. – A fairway bunker wasn’t Talor Gooch’s only hazard on the 18th hole at TPC Louisiana.

Gooch’s ball came to rest Thursday within a few feet of three gators, leading to a lengthy delay as he sorted out his options.

Chesson Hadley used a rake to nudge two of the gators on the tail, sending them back into the pond surrounding the green. But the third gator wouldn’t budge.

“It woke him up from a nap,” Gooch said, “and he was hissing away and wasn’t happy.”

The other two gators remained in the water, their eyes fixed on the group.

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“I’m sure we would have been fine, but any little movement by them and no chance I would have made solid contact,” he said.

A rules official granted Gooch free relief, away from the gator, but he still had to drop in the bunker. The ball plugged.

“I chose life over a good lie in that situation,” he said.

He splashed out short of the green, nearly holed out his pitch shot and made par to cap off an eventful 6-under 66 with partner Andrew Landry.

“It was my first gator par,” he said. “I’ll take it.”

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Koepka's game 'where it should be' even after injury

By Ryan LavnerApril 26, 2018, 11:18 pm

AVONDALE, La. – Brooks Koepka didn’t look rusty Thursday while making six birdies in the first round of the Zurich Classic.

Making his first start in four months because of a torn ligament in his left wrist, Koepka and partner Marc Turnesa shot a 5-under 67 in fourballs at TPC Louisiana.

“It felt good,” Koepka said afterward. “It was just nice to be out here. I played pretty solid.”

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The reigning U.S. Open champion felt soreness in his wrist the week after he won the Dunlop Phoenix in the fall. He finished last at the Hero World Challenge in December and then the following month at the Tournament of Champions before shutting it down.

He only began practicing last week and decided to commit to the Zurich Classic after three solid days at Medalist. He decided to partner with one of his friends in South Florida, Marc Turnesa, a former PGA Tour winner who now works in real estate.

Koepka hasn’t lost any distance because of the injury – he nearly drove the green on the 355-yard 16th hole. He’s planning to play the next two weeks, at the Wells Fargo Championship and The Players.

“I feel like I’m playing good enough to be right where I should be in April,” he said. “I feel good, man. There’s nothing really wrong with my game right now.”

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Like a tattoo: Ko shares early Mediheal lead

By Randall MellApril 26, 2018, 10:45 pm

Lydia Ko put herself in early position Thursday to try to extend her birthday celebration through Sunday at the LPGA Mediheal Championship.

Ko, who turned 21 on Tuesday, is off to a strong start at Lake Merced Golf Club, where she has a lot of good memories to draw upon as she seeks to regain the winning form that made her the greatest teen phenom in the history of the women’s game.

With a 4-under-par 68, Ko moved into a four-way tie for the lead among the morning wave in the first round. I.K. Kim, Jessica Korda and Caroline Hedwall also opened with 68s.

All Ko has to do is look at her right wrist to feel good about returning to San Francisco. That’s where she tattooed the date April 27, 2014, in Roman numerals. That’s how she commemorated her Swinging Skirts victory at Lake Merced, her first title as an LPGA member. She won there again the following year.

“This is a golf course where I've played well,” Ko said. “The fans have been amazing. They’ve been super supportive every single time I've come here, even since I played the U.S. Juniors here.”

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Ko made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Girls’ Junior at Lake Merced in 2012.

“It just brings back a lot of great memories,” she said.

Ko got this week off to a good start with friends from South Korea and New Zealand flying to California to surprise her on her birthday. She was born in South Korea and grew up in New Zealand.

“Turning 21 is a huge thing in the United States,” Ko cracked. “I’m legal now, and I can do some fun things.”

Ko is looking to claim her 15th LPGA title and end a 21-month winless spell. Her ball striking was sharp Thursday, as she continues to work on improvements under her swing coach, Ted Oh. She hit 11 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens in regulation.

“My ball striking's been getting better these last few weeks, which has been really nice,” Ko said at week’s start. “But then I've been struggling with putting, which was the aspect of the game that was going really well. I feel like the pieces are there, and just, sometimes, the hardest thing is to kind of put all those pieces together. Just have to stay patient, I know there are a lot of good things happening.”

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Watch: Rose drops trou despite gator danger

By Golf Channel DigitalApril 26, 2018, 10:12 pm

We all know how fashion-conscious pro golfers are, and sometimes that even trumps modesty.

Take Justin Rose, whose tee shot on the par-3 third hole in Thursday's opening round of the Zurich Classic found the water. But the ball was close enough to shore for Rose to try to play it. Not wanting to get his light-colored pants dirty - what is up with all the white pants on Tour these days, anyway? - he took them off to play the shot.

If there were any gators in the water hazard - and this being Louisiana, there almost certainly were - they showed no interest in the Englishman.

It was only appropriate that Rose should strip down for a shot, as his partner, Henrik Stenson, famously did the same thing (to an even greater degree) at Doral in 2009.

Finally, just to provide some closure, Rose failed to get up and down.