PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (AP) — Abel Gallegos was 5 when the golf pro at a nine-hole course left a club outside his door while searching for young boys on the outskirts of Buenos Aires who might be interested in playing.
The small community of Venticinco de Mayo was all about soccer.
“I live one block away from the course, so I had an idea what the club was for,” Gallegos said.
He just couldn’t imagine where it would lead.
Gallegos became the first Argentine to win the Latin American Amateur Championship on Sunday when the 17-year-old he rallied from a two-shot deficit with a 4-under 67 and a four-shot victory at Mayakoba.
Next stop: Augusta National for the Masters.
“A dream come true,” Gallegos said through a translator. “I’ll try to enjoy it to my full potential and see what happens.”
Gallegos was just learning to play when he watched on TV as Angel Cabrera won the 2009 Masters in a playoff over Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell. Equally memorable was 2013, when Cabrera lost in a playoff at Augusta National to Adam Scott.
The victory gives Gallegos a spot in the Masters and the British Open this summer at Royal St. George’s.
Gallegos was five shots behind toward the end of the third round at El Camaleon Golf Club, site of the Mayakoba Classic on the PGA Tour’s fall schedule, when he birdied the last two holes in a strong wind to close within two of Jose Vegas of Colombia.
Gallegos caught Vega, a 26-year-old regional sales director for Trackman, with a birdie on the third hole. He took the lead for the first time with a birdie on the par-5 seventh and led by two at the turn. And the teenager kept right on going until he birdied the 18th to finish at 4-under 280, the only player under par.
He won by four shots over Aaron Tarrazas of Mexico, who also shot 67. Vegas only managed two birdies in his round of 74 and finished alone in third.
The previous five winners of the tournament — organized by Augusta National, the R&A and the USGA — were from Chile three times, Costa Rica and Mexico. This is the first year the R&A is granting the Latin American Amateur winner a spot in the British Open. Gallegos also is exempt into the final stage of qualifying for the U.S. Open, and he is exempt from qualifying for any USGA amateur event for which he is eligible.
He said he plans to turn pro instead of going to America for college. He just doesn’t know when.
Gallegos grew up at Las Mulitas, a nine-hole course that measures just over 3,000 yards. As he learned the game, he said he never hit more than driver and sand wedge to the par 4s. He then transferred to a high-performance academy and developed his game at Pilar Golf Club.
“It’s a very short golf course. The grass is not very good,” Gallegos said of Las Mulitas. “But the people of my home course are very nice. I have to dedicate my trophy to them.”
He hopes to play a practice round at the Masters with defending champion Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, along with his first golfing hero, Cabrera.
Gallegos is the fifth Latin American in the field at the Masters, joining Cabrera, Joaquin Niemann of Chile, Sebastián Muñoz of Colombia and Abraham Ancer of Mexico. Niemann is a past champion of the Latin American Amateur who won his first PGA Tour event last fall at the Greenbrier.
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