PGA LatinoAmerica Championship

PGA LatinoAmerica Championship

Dec 5 - 8, 2019

By: Harvey Fialkov | Nov. 5, 2019

Glimpse the future superstars of golf at the season-ending PGA LatinoAmerica Championship from Dec. 5-8 at Trump National Doral

South Florida golf fans will always remember the legendary battle between superstars Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson on the final Sunday of the 2005 Doral Open played on the iconic Blue Monster course. Woods pulled it off and rode the momentum to his fourth Masters, beginning the second act of his career in which he’d win six majors in a three-year span, and go on to capture his 82nd title to tie Sam Snead for the most ever.

The 45-year-old Doral Open faded away in 2006, but the historic course (since reincarnated as Trump National Doral) continues to showcase the future Tiger Woods of the world with the season-ending PGA Tour LatinoAmerica Shell Championship from December 5-8. Sixty of the LatinoAmerica Tour’s (LAT) top money-winners will compete for a total purse of $175,000 on Doral’s plush Golden Palm course.

The LAT is comparable to AA in Major League Baseball, where aspiring golfers are competing to advance to the next level, the Korn Ferry Tour (formerly the Web.com Tour) and eventually the lucrative PGA Tour.

Former PGA commissioner Tim Finchem created the LAT in 2012 to expand the Tour’s footprint in Latin America by nurturing Latino golfers’ skills against top-notch competition on state-of-the-art courses while pursuing their dream to earn PGA cards. “The idea for the tour was for some of these golfers from developing countries who might not have as much access; this would be a path for them to do it and it has worked out quite well,’’ said Laury Livsey, the senior director of communications for the international PGA tours. “South Florida fans are going to see high-level golf from players you never heard of, but will be household names within 4-5 years,’’ Livesy added. “Guys on the PGA Tour who you will see on TV on Sundays. This gives people a chance to get a glimpse of them before they’re really famous.’’

The plan has worked to perfection. For the first time ever, two Latin American golfers won back-to-back PGA events in September. First, 20-year-old Chilean, Joaquin Niemann, captured the Military Tribute at The Greenbrier in West Virginia to become the youngest non-American PGA Tour winner since 1923. A week later Sebastian Munoz, 26, won the Sanderson Farm Championship in Jackson, Mississippi, to become the first Colombian-born player to win on tour since Camilo Villegas. Both cut their teeth on the LAT.

“[Joaquin] winning last week was kind of like the last piece of the puzzle that I needed to know that we’re good enough, we’re able to compete,” Munoz said recently. “That we’re here, we’re PGA Tour members, and we play to win.’’ He hopes to follow in the footsteps of Villegas and LAT legends, Argentine Angel Cabrera, a two-time Major champion, and Paraguay’s Carlos Franco, a four-time PGA winner.

The season-ending top five finishers on the development circuit’s Order of Merit earn status on the Korn Ferry Tour, with the money leader, currently Argentine Augusto Nunez of Buenos Aires, fully exempt. The sixth- to tenth-ranked golfer receives a pass into the final stages of qualifying school for the Korn Ferry Tour.

While the premise for the LAT was for Latinos to further their golf development, aspiring American pros have also taken advantage of the more interesting Tour stops (16 tournaments across 10 countries) and actually own six of the Top 10 Order of Merit spots. A few weeks after Munoz’s victory, Californian Lanto Griffin won the Houston Open and its $1.35-million first prize. Griffin toiled on the LAT in 2015 when he won the Roberto De Vicenzo Punta del Este Open Copa NEC.

Seven graduates of the LAT won PGA Tour titles in 2019, including Kevin Mitchell of Georgia, who won the Honda Classic and is up to $4.5 million in career earnings.

“I love seeing guys I’ve played with win on the PGA Tour,’’ said Evan Harmeling, 31, a Massachusetts native who is No. 2 on the Order of Merit after winning the Jamaica Classic in May. “I’ve seen their games and know I can play with them, and now they’re some of the best golfers in the world.’’

Harmeling finished second by one stroke in this prestigious event last year behind LAT veteran Michael Buttacavoli, who grew up in Miami Beach. Harmeling has his sights set on first place ($31,500), so he could pass Nunez and jump directly onto the Korn Ferry Tour.

“Miami is huge for me,’’ he said. He will have to compete with fellow American Tom Whitney, fourth on the LAT money list, who has notched five Top 5 finishes this year. Before joining the LAT, Whitney was a nuclear missile operator for the U.S. Air Force.

“Miami is the unofficial capital of South America, so it’s a perfect spot to celebrate our season-ending tour championships,’’ said Cristina Vanderbeck, director of PGA Tour LatinoAmerica.

Tee times are expected to start approximately at 9 a.m., with 20 threesomes competing in the no-cut event.

Spectators can self-park in the Trump National Doral lot, or use the valet for a nominal charge.

Out-of-town visitors are welcome to take pleasure in the myriad of nearby restaurants, shops and parks that populate Doral, which is about a 3-wood drive to Downtown Miami and slightly west of Miami International Airport.

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