Chile amateur goes from no big victories to Masters

Justin Rose, of England, reacts to his final putt on the 18th green during the final round of the Sony Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
Hideki Matsyama, of Japan, reacts to his putt on the ninth green during the final round of the Sony Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
Justin Thomas drives on the first tee during the final round of the Sony Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

HONOLULU — Toto Gana hit what he described as the "best shot I've hit in my whole life," a wedge to 3 feet for a birdie to win the Latin America Amateur Championship and earn a trip to the Masters in April.

His best shot produced his biggest trophy.

Asked what his greatest achievement in golf was before his victory in Panama, the 19-year-old from Chile said: "I didn't have any achievements, to be honest. I had won a couple of tournaments at home when I was really, really young."

The Latin America Amateur completed its third year, a stroke-play tournament created by Augusta National, the USGA and the Royal & Ancient to spur growth in that part of the world. It follows the successful launch of the Asia Pacific Amateur.

The Asia Pacific Amateur is producing a higher pedigree of champions — Hideki Matsuyama won twice, and the winner last year was Curtis Luck, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. The last two Latin America winners were surprises — Gana and 16-year-old Paul Chaplet of Costa Rica last year.

The other winner was Matias Dominguez of Chile, who was a junior at Texas Tech.

Gana said the only hard part about his victory was beating Joaquin Niemann of Chile, one of his best friends who won the Junior World in 2015 at Torrey Pines.

"I really never thought I could win this tournament because all the other players have won many other tournaments, very big tournaments," Gana said in a conference call after his victory Sunday. "What I did was keep a cool head. When I saw that I had a chance to win, I believed in myself that I could do. And I gave it my all."

Chile will have a player represented at Augusta National for the second time in three years. The only other Chilean player at the Masters was Enrique Orellana, who missed the cut in 1964.

Gana has flair, and he showed how much passion he has for golf when explaining how he got started.

"When I was a little boy, 8 years old, my stepfather taught me to play golf on the practice range," he said. "When I shot a really nice shot, I never quit."

Gana will be enrolling at Lynn University in Florida.

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BLOOMING START: Justin Rose played the Sony Open as part of the new "strength of field" regulation on the PGA Tour that requires players who played fewer than 25 events last year to add a tournament they had not played in four years.

Rose was so excited about this year that he might have started earlier if he would have been eligible.

He failed to win a PGA Tour event for the first time since 2009. But in a year slowed by injury, Rose geared himself for golf's return to the Olympics and won the gold medal in Rio. That was worth an exemption into the four majors (Rose already is eligible for them), but the PGA Tour did not offer a spot in SBS Tournament of Champions.

"I didn't inquire," Rose said about Kapalua. "But in my mind, I was surprised that it didn't count in a way, just because, why wouldn't it? It's a one-off thing."

He thought maybe the tour would only give a spot to Kapalua if the gold medalist was already a PGA Tour member, much like it treated the HSBC Champions early on in its World Golf Championships history.

Rose chuckled, however, when he realized his history in Hawaii.

"It's funny enough, I don't have the right to say I should have been at Kapalua," he said. "Because I've won six years in a row and I've only been once."

A birdie on the final hole at the Sony Open gave him second place alone, which was worth $648,000.

___

PLAYING TO HIS STRENGTH: Jason Dufner is the defending champion at the CareerBuilder Challenger, where he won last year for the first time since the 2013 PGA Championship at Oak Hill. What changed? Very little.

He attributed the drought to a neck and shoulder injury that he suffered at the 2014 Masters. Dufner tried to play through it all year until he was forced to pull out of his title defense in the PGA Championship at Valhalla, which kept him off the Ryder Cup team. Playing with the injury led to bad habits with his swing, which led to bad shots, too many memories of bad shots and eventually shattered confidence.

"People don't realize, once you start playing, you have to redo everything," Dufner said. "You see it with a lot of guys coming back. It takes them 6, 8, 12 months. I spent 2015 trying to get back to where I was."

Where he wants to be is one of the top ball-strikers in the game.

As for putting? He manages.

Dufner has finished no higher than No. 143 in the key putting statistic over the last four years, and while he has to pay attention to his setup, it's not as though he's going to abandon what got him here (his swing) to pour everything into becoming Jordan Spieth.

"I've been putting bad for 17 years," he said. "It's tough to change. I can hit it good enough to make up for it. I'll wait for my weeks where I putt good and try to win."

___

THE RACE TO MEXICO: Mackenzie Hughes won the RSM Classic, and his first thought was going to the Masters.

Now that it's beginning to sink, the Canadian rookie has reason to consider other tournaments that were not on his schedule at the start of the season. First up is the World Golf Championship in Mexico.

The top 10 in the FedEx Cup standings through the Honda Classic are eligible for the Mexico Championship, and there are only six tournaments between now and then.

That's also true for Pat Perez, who tied for third at Kapalua and is No. 3 in the FedEx Cup. Rod Pampling is at No. 6.

The other World Golf Championships event in March is based off the world ranking, so those three players have much more to do for them to get into the top 64. One player who might have secured his spot was Kevin Kisner, who shot 60 in the third round of the Sony Open and wound up in a tie for fourth. That took Kisner from No. 51 to No. 41, making it difficult to fall that far in two months.

___

DIVOTS: Justin Thomas moving to No. 8 in the world means that six of the top 10 players are under 30. ... The Golf Writers Association of America has voted former PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem for the William D. Richardson Award for outstanding contributions to golf. For the GWAA's award for press cooperation, it was a tie between Ben Crenshaw and Stewart Cink. They will be honored at the GWAA annual awards dinner on April 5 in Augusta. ... The three courses used for the CareerBuilder Challenge — PGA West Stadium Course, PGA West Nicklaus and La Quinta — ranked among the top 10 in easiest courses on the PGA Tour last year. ... The fourth Latin America Amateur Championship will be played at Prince of Wales Country Club next year in Santiago, Chile. ... The European Tour now has eight events in its Rolex Series with China-based HNA Group signing a five-year deal to be title sponsor of the French Open. That will raise the purse to $7 million in line with other Rolex Series events.

___

STAT OF THE WEEK: Justin Thomas hit 34 drives that went at least 330 yards during his two weeks in Hawaii — 20 on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, 14 at Waialae Country Club.

___

FINAL WORD: "If there's no defense, then you ought to be able to make birdies. If there's wind, you ought to be struggling." — Kevin Kisner.

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