Rookies Romero, Salazar Living the Dream at Jupiter Hills May 18, 2018 | Tequesta, Fla. By Jeff Babineau

Daniel Romero (left) and Daniel Salazar plan to enjoy their first USGA championship no matter what the outcome. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Home

Two hundred and fifty-six players – 128 two-man sides – have gathered beneath gray Florida skies this week for the 4th U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship. One of those competitors is greener than the fairways upon which he is competing.

Yes, Daniel Salazar is happy to be playing in his first USGA championship. That's an understatement of grand proportions. His GPS may show the Californian that he’s at Jupiter Hills Club. But to Salazar, 26, if there is a golf heaven, he is standing in it. That’s why he can’t stop smiling.

Four years ago, he was a curious ex-ice and roller hockey player who one night, out of boredom, borrowed an old, beat-up set of clubs belonging to his girlfriend’s father and headed to a lighted driving range. On Thursdays, Salazar started two loops at Van Buren Golf Center in Riverside, Calif., which has a nine-hole executive course. He couldn’t break 100. Still, the game, as it can, put him in a gentle headlock and refused to let him go.

Now he’s hooked. All in. 

Salazar is a constant chaser: Break 100 (five months); break 90 (20 months); break 80 (last year). Once his Handicap Index® dipped below 5.4, the magic number a player must get beneath to compete in the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, Salazar had an idea. He asked Daniel Romero – the sculpted 27-year-old fitness sales manager he’d met signing up for a gym membership – if he would join him at a qualifier.

Romero, 27, hadn’t played golf competitively since high school, channeling his free time into his job at the gym and his young family  he has a 2-year-old daughter). He said yes. The two started training. They hit balls at night, under the lights. They rose early to play 18 holes before work. Salazar kept getting better.

Last October in Oxnard, Calif., not far from where the two reside – Salazar lives in Oxnard, Romero in Camarillo  the pair shot 8-under 64 at River Ridge Golf Club to earn their trip to Jupiter Hills. Salazar was really nervous that day, so Romero did the early lifting. But on the final hole, their fate rested in Salazar’s hands. 

He reached the closing par 5 with a drive and a smashed 4-iron and faced 35 feet for eagle. A birdie would get the duo to their ambitious goal of shooting 8 under. Salazar’s first putt was awful. It curled, then stopped 13 feet short of the hole. The next putt crashed into the hole. Sixty-four. Only a pair of promising college-bound teens, Guy Clauss – he has advanced to U.S. Open sectional qualifying this year – and Brendan Gonzalez, who shot 60, fared better. The Daniels were championship-bound.

Seven months would pass between that birdie and U.S. Amateur Four-Ball week, but the time has flown. The accomplishment of getting to Jupiter Hills settled in for Salazar on Wednesday afternoon, when he and Romero showed up to register and were given their gold competitor’s pins.

“They treat you like you matter so much in the game,” Salazar said, somewhat amazed. “I’m just the 3-handicap that’s here.”

The U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, which came into being in 2015, has become the modern-day championship for golf’s everyman.  For every player of pedigree deserving of a roster spot in an amateur golf’s edition of Who’s Who, there’s a considerable dose of Who’s He? Therein lies the championship’s inherent beauty.

Most weeks, Salazar hits balls one day and plays 18 holes on another. Romero had been playing 18 holes maybe every other week. But getting to the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball has inspired each to work harder (Salazar doubled his routine), and to compete more often at home in California.

“I told D (Salazar) at the qualifier, we got this,” said Romero, who, as a youngster, wanted to be a pro golfer. “This was my childhood dream. It means everything. Our motto was ‘Trust it and commit. Trust every shot.’ If we do that, whatever happens, happens.”

This already has been a special week. Romero was running off to the airport in Fort Lauderdale following a practice round on Jupiter Hills’ Village Course Friday to gather his wife and 2-year-old daughter. His father will caddie for him in Saturday’s first round of stroke play on the Village Course. They will play the Hills Course in Sunday’s second round.

Tori Campbell, Salazar's girlfriend of six years, will be his caddie this week. The two work completely separate schedules – he’s an operations manager at Macy’s who works days, and she works the graveyard shift for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office. Early on, Tori would join Salazar for nine holes at Van Buren, but she says golf is not for her. She hadn’t seen Salazar play in two years until she joined him for two practice rounds at Jupiter Hills. She’s been amazed. “He’s a completely different golfer,” she said.

Salazar learned some early fundamentals with a three-lesson holiday package at a nearby GolfTEC, but for the most part he's done this on his own, serving as his own teacher, diving into hours upon hours of instruction that he finds on YouTube.

He adjusts. He wanted to shape a perfect draw off the tee, but abandoned that for a more trusty peel-cut that he can control. Romero said Salazar’s biggest leap has been with the putter; Salazar shaved five shots off his game in the past year, mostly on the greens. Salazar never stops thinking about golf. When he and Tori got back to the house they’ve rented with Salazar after the USGA and Jupiter Hills members threw a lavish welcome party on Thursday night, Salazar went directly upstairs to his computer to watch lesson videos.

“I see golf as a challenge, and I’m always up for a challenge,” he said. “In hockey, I was always pretty good, so I knew that every time I played. Golf ... it can be a little bit different every single day. I fell in love with the grind to get better.”

Canadian Ethan O’Meara, playing alongside Salazar and Romero in a practice round Friday, had one thought when informed that Salazar was such a golf newbie. “That’s crazy,” O’Meara said.

Romero is the steadier of the two players. He was a high school teammate of Web.com Tour player Joseph Bramlett, and his golf highlight until this week had been making birdie on the final green to win a rival match for St. Francis, in Mountain View, Calif. He sees his chance pairing with Salazar as a complete win-win. The two players push each other. Each continues to improve. Salazar relishes the chemistry, too. He appreciates his partner’s unwavering support.

“He’s good at making me believe in myself,” Salazar said. “He tells me I can play at this level. I may not be the best player out here, I know that. But I can play.”

After all, he is here, isn’t he?

Jeff Babineau is an award-winning Florida-based freelance writer.

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