The Latin America Amateur Championship will bring together 109 of the best players in the region – indeed, several of them are among the top 200 players in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™. And there are 109 routes that brought these players to Pilar Golf and the inaugural playing of this championship, starting on Jan. 15.
Take Jose Mendez. The 19-year-old from San Jose, Costa Rica, traveled here by way of Minneapolis – specifically, the University of Minnesota, where Mendez has spent his first three college semesters as one of the Golden Gophers’ top players.
“When I went there for my college visit, they treated me really well,” said Mendez of his decision to enroll so far from home. “I felt like I was with family.”
Mendez has thrived at the Big Ten school, earning first-team conference honors while being named to the Golf Coaches Association of America All-Freshman Team. He has finished in the top 20 in 13 consecutive events, with three victories, a level of consistency that dates to October 2013. Some still might question Mendez’s college choice, based on geography.
“It’s like minus-23 Celsius [10 below zero Fahrenheit] there right now,” said Mendez. “It’s been rough. But we have indoor practice facilities and we travel about eight times a year. And we get two jackets, so we don’t suffer at all there.”
Mendez did not land in the Land of 10,000 Lakes as an unheralded player. He won the 15-17-year-old division of the 2013 Callaway World Junior Championship at Torrey Pines in San Diego, topping a deep international field by two strokes in an event that boasts champions such as Nick Price, Tiger Woods and Jason Day. He also earned the bronze medal in the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Olympic Games as the youngest competitor in the field.
“That was a similar experience to Torrey Pines,” said Mendez, who is No. 50 in the World Ranking. “It was a different adrenaline. I learned a lot because I played with professionals who are now playing on the Web.com Tour. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
This week, Mendez hopes to trump that experience with a victory – which would earn him an exemption into the 2015 Masters Tournament, as well as exemptions into the 2015 British Amateur and U.S. Amateur championships, and berths in final-stage qualifying for both the 2015 U.S. Open and British Open.
“I’ve been preparing myself for the last three years in order to achieve this,” said Mendez, who has competed for Costa Rica in two World Amateur Team Championships. “My goal is to become one of the top 10 amateur players in the world.”
Mendez started playing at age 8 when he accompanied his father one day. “It was just to enjoy – you couldn’t really call it a golf course,” he recalled. “After that, he took me to a real course and gave me a set of clubs and then, yes, I started.”
Mendez estimated that there are about 10 elite players in his country of 4.5 million people, although the national golf federation is working to develop players through its junior program. He is joined in the LAAC field by compatriots Alvaro Ortiz and Paul Chaplet.
Although Mendez ultimately hopes to become the first player from Costa Rica to play on the PGA Tour, he noted another reason for his college choice.
“Basically, I decided to go to Minnesota because of the academic part,” said Mendez, who helped the Golden Gophers earn their first Big Ten men’s golf title since 2007. “Just in case I get injured, or I don’t turn out to be a really good player on the PGA Tour, I’ve got a degree so I can be good for the rest of my life.”
Tourinho Delays Pro Career for LAAC
Like Jose Mendez, Andre Tourinho of Brazil played in the Callaway World Junior Championship, and he also honed his game in the United States. He competed for four years at the University of Tulsa, graduating in 2012, and planned to cap his amateur career after representing Brazil last September at the World Amateur Team Championship in Japan.
Then Tourinho found out about the inaugural Latin America Amateur, and he decided to delay his professional aspirations.
“It’s a huge opportunity – very few people get this opportunity,” said Tourinho, 24, who won the Brazilian Amateur title in 2013 and 2014. “Having been the Brazilian champion for a couple of years now, I had to be here.”
A native of Rio de Janeiro, Tourinho played in prep school for coach Erik Andersson, a former Tulsa player. Tourinho has represented Brazil in several international competitions and is No. 232 in the World Ranking, but his biggest career moment is leading the Brazilian Open through two rounds in November after rounds of 68-63. Countryman Rafael Becker went on to win the PGA Tour Latinoamerica event, but Tourinho gained valuable experience while finishing in a tie for 23rd.
The LAAC is not the only event to change Tourinho’s schedule. Seven months ago, his wife, Madison, whom he met in college, gave birth to their first child, Gustavo. That necessitated them moving from Bradenton, Fla., back to Tulsa, where his wife’s family is helping them care for their son.
“You try to get as much done as you can,” said Tourinho. “When you’re home, you’re home, and you take care of things there. When you’re away, you play golf and practice and make sure to make the best use of your time, because time can get very short.”
Tourinho’s amateur career may be running short, unless he comes out on top this week. The winner receives all of the championship’s perks only if he retains his amateur status. If he doesn’t win, Tourinho will attempt to qualify for the Latinoamerica Tour in two weeks at the Hurlingham Club in Buenos Aires, where 33 players in a field of 120 will become exempt for the first half of the tour’s 20-event season.
“I stayed amateur for a few years after college so I could practice and compete,” said Tourinho. “Now I have this opportunity – hopefully I can stay amateur for a few more months.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.