The LAAC is back after a long recess

It has been almost two years since the last champion of the Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC), Abel Gallegos, lifted the trophy in Mexico in January of 2020. Two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic confined the world and temporarily paralyzed collective activities. Golf was no exception.

“In these two years I grew as a player and as a person, and I feel that I am much more mature,” said Gallegos. The Argentine had to wait until November of 2020 to participate in the Masters after the tournament was postponed and held without patrons for the first time in its history.

His victory at the LAAC also earned him a spot in the 2020 U.S. Amateur, where he competed at Bandon Dunes, Oregon, in August of 2020, and the 149th Open Championship, which wasn’t played until the following year.

But the defending LAAC champion wasn’t the only amateur who had their career disrupted by the pandemic. Every player in the 2022 field faced their own struggles as the world grappled with COVID-19.

“During the whole break I think what hurt me the most is that I had the opportunity to go play the U.S. Amateur and I could not get there,” said Guatemalan Alejandro Villavicencio, who had to give up an invitation to Bandon Dunes due to travel restrictions.

Villavicencio has competed in every LAAC since its beginning, but the 42-year-old was limited to practicing putts on the balcony of his house as the world shut down. “I spent several months sharpening the putts, but it was hard to stop playing for so long,” he said.

“It’s been a time to reflect and spend more time with family. I feel that whenever these difficult situations arise, you have to take the positive approach,” said Costa Rican Felipe Odio, who is making his LAAC debut this year and recently committed to play golf at the University of Louisiana-Monroe.

“The pandemic almost had a terminal effect on my game, like I lost my love for golf,” said Colombian Esteban Jaramillo, a freshman on the golf team at Utah State University. When the golf courses reopened in Bogota, Jaramillo returned to competition and won several tournaments in Colombia before signing with the Aggies.

Like the rest of the world, golf clubs around the Latin American region shut down at the onset of the pandemic, canceling the 2020 LAAC and other important amateur tournaments such as the South American Open and the Andes Cup.

“COVID has been very hard on everybody. I had to rethink many things and it was very difficult for me to find that extra motivation,” said Bolivian Camilo Ávila, who after the break has found his “safe place, health and meaning of life” in the game of golf. Avila, who is making his second start at the LAAC, finished tied for 19th in his debut in Mexico in 2020.

“The handling of COVID in Panama, with one of the most severe restrictions in the region, has been quite effective and we have managed to finalize a calendar of many tournaments,” said 31-year-old Panamanian Omar Tejeira Jaen, who has tried to adapt to the circumstances to continue training for his first LAAC after recovering his amateur status in 2020.

Two other rookies in the Latin America Amateur Championship, Mexican Alejandro Fierro and Argentine Vicente Marzilio, have been able to benefit from their residence in the United States to continue practicing and competing in more favorable conditions.

“Since school started until now I’ve done pretty well,” said Fierro, the 16-year-old brother of Isabella Fierro, the No. 45 player in the women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking. Alejandro has spent the last few months studying at Montverde Academy and training at the International Junior Golf Academy in Florida.

“Luckily, living in a pandemic and playing in a pandemic didn’t stop my goals. It was two years of almost exponential growth because I started my university career in the United States,” said Marzilio, who plays for the University of North Texas and arrives at his first LAAC after a low-amateur finish at the Argentine Open.

Marzilio finished a great 2021 with a victory for the Argentine team at the Andes Cup in December alongside teammates Mateo Fernández de Oliveira, Andres Shonbaum, Segundo Oliva Pinto and defending LAAC champion Gallegos, all of whom are back at the LAAC in Casa de Campo after far too long.