Chaplet edges Garcia to capture Latin America Amateur and berth in Masters

Paul Chaplet
Paul Chaplet took home the 2016 Latin America Amateur title and earned a berth in The Masters. ( Enrique Berardi/LAAC )

LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic – Showing a calmness that belied his age, 16-year-old Paul Chaplet of Costa Rica – who will start his senior year of high school in a few weeks – shot a closing 2-under 70 on Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog Sunday to edge Jorge Garcia and win the second Latin America Amateur Championship.

Chaplet finished the tournament at 3-under 285, one shot better than Venezuela’s Garcia, a freshman at Florida who shot 74 on Sunday. Chaplet’s surprising victory (he is 832nd in the World Amateur Golf Ranking) delivers a coveted spot into April’s Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, where Chaplet will join fellow teen Jin Cheng (17) of China, who captured the Asia-Pacific Amateur in Hong Kong in October.

Chaplet will be the second-youngest competitor to compete at Augusta; China’s Tianlang Guan was 14 when he played in the 2013 Masters. Chaplet, who turns 17 on April 18, just 10 days after the completion of the Masters, will be one day younger than Italy’s Matteo Manassero was when he competed there at 16 in 2010.

Chaplet, tall and thin, chose golf over soccer and surfing seven years ago in Costa Rica, a country of about 4.5 million residents and 3,500 golfers. He only viewed his first Masters less than four years ago, in 2012, when Bubba Watson won his first green jacket.

“It was something I’ve always dreamed of playing,” Chaplet said of Augusta. “It’s a child’s dream, really. So to have the privilege to play there is incredible.”

A great start and two solid pars at Teeth of the Dog’s final two holes proved to be the difference. A long hitter (115-mph swing speed, which easily produces drives of 300-plus yards), Chaplet, who began Sunday four shots out of the lead, played his opening eight holes in 3 under, giving him the cushion to play smartly and conservatively down the closing holes.

He would pick up one last key birdie on his way in with a deft up-and-down at the reachable par-5 14th (behind him, Garcia would make eagle from 20 feet after reaching the green), and he stayed away from any big numbers on the way home on the tough coastal holes that are guarded by jagged rocks and the Caribbean Sea. Chaplet said the most important part of his game was his willingness to accept pars and the occasional bogey and move on without being bothered.

“This golf course,” he said, “is all about patience.”

Garcia, who left Venezuela for Miami to live with an aunt at age 12 because he was determined to chase his golf dreams, was tied for the lead at 3 under walking down the 17th fairway. But he hung his approach to the right with an 8-iron at the 422-yard par 4, and his ball finished in a bunker. His third shot released 15 feet past the hole, onto the collar of the green, and Garcia missed the putt for par.

The second-highest-ranked player in the field (No. 38 in the WAGR), Garcia gave himself a chance at the final hole, hitting a terrific 7-iron approach from 189 yards that settled 10 feet above the hole. But his birdie putt to tie Chaplet drifted right and offline early, and he’d tap in for par and settle for the championship’s silver medal. A year ago, his Florida teammate, Argentina’s Alejandro Tosti, who played in the final group Sunday, also left the LAAC with silver.

“I feel like with the way I hit the ball, I had more than enough chances to win this championship, and it’s something that gives me confidence,” Garcia said. “I’ll just work harder next year.”

Chaplet now is exempt into this summer’s 120th British Amateur (Royal Porthcawl, Wales) and U.S. Amateur (Oakland Hills), and he and Garcia earned exemptions into final qualifiers for the U.S. Open (Oakmont) and British Open (Royal Troon). Chaplet is young enough still to compete at the U.S. Junior Amateur, for which he is exempt. Garcia would be eligible for both amateur championships if he stays in the top 50 in the WAGR.

Garcia had been one of the week’s steadiest performers, shooting 69 Saturday without a bogey, but on this occasion, it wasn’t his time. Garcia knows something about being a teen in the bright spotlight: he played, and made the cut, at the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open three years ago. This time, though, the show belonged to somebody else.

Funny, but Chaplet, Costa Rica’s Match Play and Junior champion, came to Teeth of the Dog hoping to attract more interest among college coaches in the U.S. Suffice to say, he accomplished that. His early list of candidates – Arizona, Minnesota, San Diego State and Sam Houston – is likely to expand.

“He’s approaching a tough situation, which is a good problem to have, picking a university,” said Alvaro E. Ortiz, 47, a four-time World Amateur Team competitor from Costa Rica who plays out of the same club as Chaplet and has served as his mentor. Ortiz finished his own round on Sunday and looped back to see Chaplet finish.

“He’s going to have some tough choices to make. But today changes everything. We will see. He has great talent, but other than being a great golfer, he’s a great kid. And that’s important. He’s going to the Masters. I don’t know . . . I have to see it to believe it.”

Well, believe it. In three months, Chaplet will be there, competing against Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and the best players in the world.

Chaplet already has a favorite hole when he watches the event on TV: Augusta National’s par-5 13th. A golfer either can play it conservatively by laying up or can attack it with an aggressive approach.

“Those turning points happen there,” Chaplet said.

Much like Chaplet’s week at Teeth of the Dog, which is very much a turning point for a talented young player who now will become the first player from Central America to compete in the Masters.

“I came into this tournament knowing I had a chance if I played my best golf, and this just proves to me that I can,” he said. “That’s really all that matters. Believing in yourself is the most important part.”

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