LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic – Alejandro Tosti’s story can come full circle this week at the Latin America Amateur Championship.
The winner here at Caso de Campo receives a spot in the Masters – a tournament Tosti has been itching to play ever since he was 5 years old, when he watched the telecast on TV, grabbed a barbecue stick and smacked a deodorant ball around his family’s home in Rosario, Argentina.
“I was hitting the ball all over and breaking glasses,” he recalled Friday. “My mom would scream, ‘Stop doing that!’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I want to go play golf.’”
Tosti’s parents didn’t play, and his mother, Patricia, asked why he didn’t want to try soccer or tennis or rugby – the popular sports in their home country. He still wouldn’t budge. His parents flipped through the Yellow Pages to find a spot to practice.
The nearest course was in Perez, about 10 miles away. Tosti started playing there on the weekends, but with his parents’ busy work schedule – his father, Juan Carlos, was an electronic engineer and his mother a secretary – the 8-year-old often walked seven blocks to the bus station and took the one-hour ride to the club, alone.
“I was loving the sport and nobody was telling me to go practice,” he said. “I went because I wanted to.”
Tosti won his first national junior title when he was 8, on a short course with 120-yard par 3s, 200-yard par 4s and 250-yard par 5s, and with seven mismatched clubs gifted from his first swing coach, Lincho Romero.
A few years later, Tosti joined the Argentina Golf Association and attended a high-performance institute in Buenos Aires. At age 15, he took his first trip to the U.S., but his English was so limited that he couldn’t even ask for a Coke. Several college golf coaches still extended scholarship offers, even though Tosti hadn’t even considered the possibility of playing in the States.
“But then I started looking at all the guys in my country who were playing really good amateur golf and turning pro at 18, after high school,” he said. “They really struggled, because it’s a profession. You have to work and know the world, know how to speak English. Those guys had a problem at the age of 22 without a plan B in their life.”
With a year off between high school and college, Tosti spent every afternoon with a tutor to learn the language. He passed the SAT exam and chose to play at the University of Florida, largely because of his relationship with Gators assistant coach John Handrigan.
In June 2014, J.C. Deacon was one day into his tenure as Florida’s head coach when he reached out to Tosti to gauge whether he was still interested in coming to Gainesville after the coaching change. Tosti never answered the call, instead sending back a text: “I don’t speak English.”
Not surprisingly, then, it was a turbulent freshman year. He struggled with the language barrier and expressing himself with his teammates and coaches, with the balance of golf and coursework, with his parents being a 16-hour flight away.
“It was really difficult to keep up with everything,” he said.
Yet his fortunes appeared to improve at last year’s Latin America Amateur, in his home country of Argentina. One shot off the lead with two holes to play, with a Masters berth on the line, he missed a 4-foot par putt on the 71st hole and failed to birdie the last even after eventual winner Matias Dominguez made bogey to open the door.
Tosti was devastated, but he found solace in his college coach. In the 2005 U.S. Amateur semifinals, with a Masters berth on the line, Deacon held a 1-up lead with two to play against Dillon Dougherty. He dropped the last two holes and lost the match.
“I’ve felt those feelings, of getting the Masters snatched away from you, and it was fun in a way to tell him that story,” Deacon said by phone Friday. “He understood. But I told him: ‘It’s what you make of it now.’”
Tosti’s game was trending upward after the LAAC, but a tooth infection that went untreated sent him to the hospital during the NCAA postseason. Suffering from severe headaches, vomiting and fatigue, Tosti’s doctors determined that he had encephalitis – essentially, swelling of the brain – which required nine days in a hospital bed with a catheter, and 20 more days at home where he administered the IV himself.
When his health finally improved, his game wasn’t nearly sharp enough to contend for any of the major titles over the summer. In fact, Deacon said, “it wasn’t until the last three events this fall [which included a win at FGCU Classic] that we started seeing the Tosti that we all know.”
Now he has returned to the Latin America Amateur, where the memories of last year’s near miss are still fresh. After a rocky opening-round 75, Tosti improved 10 shots on Friday, making nine birdies during a 7-under 65 that moved him into a share of second place, three behind leader Nicolas Echavarria of Colombia.
“I feel the other guys are going to ask themselves how he did that with a double bogey,” Tosti said. “It is the round at the right moment for this tournament.”
“None of his coaches or teammates are surprised by any of this,” Deacon said. “He has no fear on the golf course. He thinks he can hit every shot and, honestly, he can. He’s so explosive. He’s very powerful and has a great touch. He’s really the whole package, and when he gets in a rhythm there’s almost no one that can hang with him.”
Tosti has one of the most natural swings Deacon has ever seen – a powerful, efficient action that was groomed by watching the Masters, by whacking around a deodorant ball with a barbecue stick, and now has improved with the help of Hernan Rey, a member of the Argentina Golf Association who teaches at the Gary Gilchrist Academy in central Florida.
“What he can do with the golf ball and the technique and kind of form he’s learned somehow, some way, it was like he was touched by the golf gods,” Deacon said. “He has the talent and ability with the short game that no one else can do. I’ll ask him how he hit a shot, and he’ll say: “Coach, I just do it.’ He puts that picture in his mind and his body creates it. It’s truly a gift that he has.”
The next step – the only step left – in his progression is to win a major amateur title, to gain more exposure on the global stage.
Perhaps after learning the hard way last year, Tosti has expressed little interest in talking about what a spot in the Masters would mean until he holes out on the 72nd hole, until he lifts the trophy.
“But trust me, it would mean everything to him,” Deacon said. “Every time he practices or plays, it’s with that Masters logo in the back of his mind.”