Four years ago while scouting a pair of Florida junior tournaments, University of Miami (Fla.) women’s golf coach Patti Rizzo noticed a young woman with an impressive golf swing.
“Her lower-body action was as good as any male player,” said Rizzo, a four-time LPGA Tour winner who was the runner-up to Juli Inkster in the 1980 U.S. Women’s Amateur. “That’s hard to find. [Her action] reminded me a lot of [former Japanese star] Ayako Okamoto.”
Rizzo was among the first to spot the burgeoning talent displayed by Daniela Darquea. Her home country, Ecuador, doesn’t have much of a golf pedigree. While South American countries such as Colombia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina have each produced at least one USGA champion, Ecuador is a relative neophyte.
Thanks to Darquea, that may change.
Since joining the University of Miami golf program in the fall of 2013, Darquea has made huge strides.
Last year, she became the first Hurricane in two decades (Julia Brand 1994) to earn All-America honors, and on May 18 in a U.S. Women’s Open sectional qualifier at Bradenton (Fla.) Country Club, the 20-year-old generated even bigger history. By sharing medalist honors with fellow amateur Regina Plasencia, Darquea became the first player from Ecuador – male or female – to qualify for a USGA championship.
While the vast majority of the country isn’t golf-savvy – there are 1,300 golfers and seven courses in a population of nearly 16 million – all of Ecuador’s major media outlets have interviewed Darquea since she qualified. She has become a celebrity in the tiny country that borders Colombia (north) and Peru (south and east), and is best known for the Galapagos Islands just off its coast.
“All the country is so happy,” said Jorge Mesa, the national coach for the Ecuador Golf Federation and Darquea’s instructor the past five years. “Everybody knows her and follows her.
“For me, it’s like a gift.”
Mesa strolled the fairways of Lancaster Country Club on Monday as his pupil prepared for the biggest championship in women’s golf. A former touring professional who became the federation’s lead coach in 2010, Mesa said that Darquea, a rising junior at Miami, could have the same type of impact in Ecuador that Lorena Ochoa and Se Ri Pak did in Mexico and Korea, respectively.
Darquea boasts the stronger resume of the two Ecuadorian female golfers enrolled at U.S. colleges. Fellow rising junior Coralia Arias plays at Florida International University in Miami. Two years ago, Darquea was the runner-up to Brooke Henderson in the South American Junior. She also finished sixth that year in the South American Amateur.
“Five years ago, I can tell you that we were finishing in last or [near the bottom] at the South American Championship,” said Mesa. “Right now, we are second and third.”
And yet, if her parents had had their way, Darquea might be preparing for Wimbledon or US Open tennis instead of a major golf championship. At Arrayanes Country Club in suburban Quito, Darquea was first introduced to the racquet sport, but she hated it. She wanted to play golf, so an uncle introduced her to the game.
“I loved it,” said Darquea. “Hitting the ball was something special.”
By age 10, she was competing in regional tournaments. Four years later, she represented Ecuador at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in Argentina, the last time Ecuador fielded a team for the Espirito Santo Trophy.
By then, Darquea was playing tournaments in the U.S., most notably the Doral Publix and Junior Orange Bowl, Florida events that annually attract top players from South America and Latin America. The University of Texas recruited her, but Miami felt like home. It also didn’t hurt that the Canes’ 2013 class also included Delfina Acosta from Argentina. Darquea looked up to Acosta and initially didn’t think her game matched up. Rizzo said that convincing Darquea that she was on par with Acosta was her biggest coaching challenge.
In the past two years, Darquea has won two tournaments, been named honorable-mention All-America by the Women’s Golf Coaches Association and is currently No. 37 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™, the highest-ranked player from South America. Only Mexico’s Gabby Lopez, also in this week’s Women’s Open field, is ranked higher among Latin American players at No. 17.
“Her only weakness is she doesn’t know how good she is,” said Rizzo, who has slotted Darquea at the No. 1 position since her arrival in 2013. “She can be a little humble and naïve. Sometimes she admires other people. I told her, ‘Dani, you should not admire anybody else.’ I keep telling her that I haven’t seen anybody like her in quite a while.”
Mesa, who has seen Darquea’s mental maturation since she enrolled at Miami, would agree with Rizzo’s assessment. He sees very few weaknesses in her game.
“She hits it long, she’s good with the putter and she hits good irons,” said Mesa. “Her best thing is her irons, her second shots. She’s so good at controlling her distance.”
Those skills – along with a calm demeanor – could pay off nicely this week at Lancaster, a course that measures 6,483 yards with six par 4s of more than 400 yards.
“If she is nervous, you can’t tell by watching her,” said Rizzo. “She doesn’t hit wild drives or miss short putts because she is nervous.”
Darquea also will have a friendly face on her bag. Miami’s assistant coach, John Koskinen, who was scheduled to arrive Monday night from Miami, will serve as her caddie. Not only does Koskinen know her game, he also qualified for consecutive U.S. Opens at two of the country’s most challenging venues: Winged Foot (2006) and Oakmont (2007). Rizzo, who played in 15 Women’s Opens and finished fourth in 1983 at Cedar Ridge Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., noted that Koskinen is more of a technical coach to Darquea, who is very analytical on the course.
“John is amazing,” said Darquea. “He helps me with course management and I’ve learned a lot from him. When I am a little bit off, he helps me out.”
Rizzo, meanwhile, provides the mental support. And she can relate to what Darquea might be experiencing this week. Rizzo’s first Women’s Open was in 1978 at the Country Club of Indianapolis as an 18-year-old amateur.
“I think I three-putted 13 greens because I had never played fast, undulating greens in my life growing up in Miami,” said Rizzo of her rookie appearance. “I was so humiliated. I think I played with Sandra Post and Kathy Whitworth.
“I was not as good as Dani when I played [my first] Open. She could definitely make the cut and have a really nice finish.”
Rizzo provides constant positive reinforcement to Darquea, who carries a 3.65 grade-point average and was a 2014 WGCA All-American Scholar. Although the two haven’t chatted recently – Darquea returned home at the end of May and didn’t return to the U.S. until Saturday night – the seeds have been firmly planted.
“She studied psychology [at Miami],” Darquea said of her coach. “I should be able to put everything I have learned into this. She always tells me I am capable of doing [big] things. It’s a really positive environment.”
This week, Darquea has put extra time into her short game, knowing that a strong performance on and around the greens will be vital. After just one practice round, Darquea felt comfortable with Lancaster.
“I have been living the dream,” she said. “I am super excited. I love it here.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.