LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic — In the first threesome off the 10th tee on Thursday morning at Casa de Campo, Alejandro Villavicencio bogeyed his first and his last hole. But in between, the native of Guatemala carded four birdies to walk off the Teeth of the Dog course with a two-under 70 and, more importantly, a sense of accomplishment. The one thing he had set out to do during the first round of the fifth Latin America Amateur Championship had come true.
He hadn’t shot himself out of tournament.
“I left myself a lot of chances,” he said afterward, his score putting him in the top 10 at day’s end, four strokes back of leader Alvaro Ortiz of Mexico. “I hit 15 greens today. Left myself a lot of putts for birdie and didn’t make much.”
The competitor in Villavicencio lives on, even if his best days on the course are behind him. At 39, the strips of blue KT Tape that cover various body parts bely his age. He spends more time running Los Ranchos Steak House in Guatemala City, the business he and his wife, Titi, own, than hitting golf balls. (“I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but [I play] when she lets me,” he joked.) They opened the restaurant in 2009, the same time Villavicencio wrapped up a five-year career as a professional golfer, the highlight of which came when he competed with his childhood friend, Pablo Acuna, for their country in the World Cup of Golf in 2008, finishing T-22.
In 2006, Villavicencio was the first Central American to reach the final stage of European Tour Q school back, but he failed to earn his card. His other claim to fame was teaming with his childhood friend, Pablo Acuna, representing their country at the World Cup of Golf in 2008, finishing T-22. But after playing a bit on the Challenge Tour, enough was enough.
Villavicencio was able still scratch his golf itch by getting his amateur status reinstated in 2010, and play in local events. He remained good enough to win the Guatemala Amateur in 2012 and the Central American Amateur a year later
Then came the news that officials with the Masters, the R&A and the USGA were creating the LAAC as a way to help grow the game in Latin America, the winner getting an invitation to Augusta National.
“I thought somebody was pulling my leg,” Villavicencio said when he first learned of the event. “When I was a professional, it wasn’t even a thought in my mind. I had to clear so many hurdles to try and even think about playing in the Masters, and here it’s a real shot. If you can put together four good rounds, you can have a chance to go.”
It pained Villavicencio that he had to miss the inaugural edition of the event in 2015. Literally. He had just had surgery on his right wrist and wasn’t able to compete. And he missed the tournament again in 2016, when it was played here at Casa de Campo, because he had yet to return to his place in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
But in 2017 in Panama, he opened with a 65 and was tied for second after 36 holes. A weekend 74-76 dropped him to T-16 at week’s end, but it reinvigorated him.
“It’s amazing to have this opportunity and to play competitive golf again and have the juices flowing,” said Villavicencio, who missed the cut at the 2018 LAAC. “I don’t get to play many tournaments a year. Probably two or three really important tournaments a year. The rest of them are really just local two-day events. So being able to compete here brings a lot of memories.”
While Villavicencio no longer has an edge in terms of distance on the rest of the field, but he does in experience. It’s how he’s able to play roughly once a week and still hold his own, having won the Central American Amateur again in 2016 and representing Guatemala at the World Amateur Team Championship in 2016 and 2018.
It was particularly challenging to keep up this past year, as he and his wife moved their restaurant to a new location. “We’ve been busy. But I don’t want to miss this.” This week he has Acuna on his bag, another friend to share the experience with.
People ask whether the LAAC is having an impact on golf in the region, and Villavicencio believes it is. He says he sees it in the fact that young players in his country, which has just six courses—it lost one last June when a volcano erupted near La Reunion Resort and engulfed the course that hosted a PGA Latinoamerica event each year—and 620 registered golfers, are becoming more serious about the game.
“Every year is tougher [to qualify for the LAAC],” he said. “Before there weren’t many players who had World Ranking points. Now everybody is really interested when they give out those points because it’s a big goal to be able to get here. People put more focus and practice more to be here and have that chance to play at Augusta.”
Whether Villavicencio can keep things up and find himself in contention this weekend is unknown, but there’s no question he’s going to enjoy giving it a try. His own dream of making the Masters lives on, even if it’s a longshot. And if it’s not this year, there’s always next. Villavicencio vows that he’ll play in the LAAC as long as possible.
“Until my wife, or my body, gives way.”