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LAAC win changed Chaplet's year, outlook, life

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PANAMA CITY, Panama – One year ago at Casa de Campo, Paul Chaplet was honest. He was honest when he said he didn’t expect to win the Latin America Amateur Championship.

He didn't expect to talk to Adam Scott at the Masters, because he didn’t expect to be at the Masters.

He also didn’t expect that he would temporarily leave school, or that a new one would come calling.

And yet here Chaplet is, one year later, both grateful for the opportunities he earned last year and careful not to dwell on them. 

Chaplet returns to the LAAC as the defending champion, but there’s no arrogance, and there’s certainly no expectation. As humble as a 17-year-old could be, Chaplet balked at the suggestion he’s any kind of “favorite” this week at Panama Golf Club.

I don’t feel extra pressure,” he said following his final practice session before Thursday’s opening round. “I feel like there are expectations that come with the title of being defending champion, but that’s in the past. I can’t do anything about it.”

Last April, two weeks after playing his first Masters, Chaplet admitted that it was hard to return to playing junior events as normal, and that it was even harder to manage expectations for his own play.

But as the year wore on, he began to understand and take seriously the lessons he learned from his week at Augusta National.

Wednesday in Panama, Chaplet mentioned Scott – his favorite player – Davis Love III, Rickie Fowler and Marc Leishman as among those took time to mentor him that week at the Masters. And all of them, according to Chaplet, offered him some version of the following:

“You can’t decide to play well,” he said. “Some weeks you play well; some weeks you don’t. The best you can do is prepare to play well. That’s the most repetitive comment I heard through the week, and so, I took that to heart.”

To some degree, he had to.

After winning the LAAC, Chaplet was suddenly qualified for the Masters and exempted into the Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur Championship, Final Qualifying for The Open and sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open. And so Chaplet and his family decided he should take the remainder of the year off from school to focus on the prestigious events in front of him. 

“We talked about it right after the Latin American,” he said. “We’re like, ‘OK, so all these opportunities came up, what are we going to do?’ … We decided to give me a chance.”

Unfortunately, as the second-youngest player in Masters history at 16 years old and as the first Costa Rican to make it to Augusta, Chaplet missed the cut following rounds of 83-82. He then missed out on qualifying for the U.S. Open and The Open and missed the cuts at the Amateur Championship and U.S. Amateur.

And while that may sound discouraging, Chaplet is pretty level-headed for a 17-year-old. And the more he played, the more that Masters-week advice made sense.

“I’ve seen the ups and down of golf,” he said. “I didn’t make the cut at the Masters, and it hurts a little bit, but it’s all part of a learning process. And that’s what I learned over the course of 2016, that you can have great ups and you can really low downs. You’ve just got to know how to fight, I guess. … And now I’m more prepared in 2017 than I was in 2016 to deal with those situations.”

Pretty soon, he’ll be dealing with them at Arizona State. Chaplet committed to the Sun Devils last fall after originally fielding offers from Arizona, San Diego State, Minnesota and Sam Houston State. In the end, he was swayed by the warm weather, the young, competitive roster and the coaching staff – led by Matt Thurmond and Van Williams.

Perhaps most importantly, Chaplet realizes that had he graduated high school in 2016, rather than 2017, he wouldn’t have been headed for Tempe.

“I might not have gone to as good of a school,” he said. “I might have had less opportunities.

“Had I not won the [LAAC], I probably would have gone back to [high school]. I would have played less tournaments. I would have had to try to qualify for the U.S. Am, and the U.S. Open sectionals, and all of that. It would have just been more … I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did.

Instead, Chaplet bounced from Augusta, Ga., to Graniteville, S.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., to Buckinghamshire, England, to Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to Porthcawl, Wales, learning the ups and downs of golf and believing he’s much better off for it.

The scores weren’t nearly as important as the lessons learned.

“We had a fun year,” he concluded. “A lot of learning, a lot of travel, a lot of experience.”