LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic — On Saturday, after Gabriel Morgan Birke shot 2-under 70 to enter the final day of the Latin America Amateur Championship tied for sixth and 3 shots off the lead, the 24-year-old Chilean wasn’t ready to go to the beach at Casa de Campo just yet. Birke, who is looking to become the fourth Chilean to win the tournament since its inception in 2015, was ready to keep swinging.
“I wasn’t happy with the last driver,” Birke said. “I want to go hit some balls … then I’ll go to the beach.”
Chile is the only country in this tournament’s history with multiple winners, and Birke is not alone in his quest to continue the country’s legacy. With one round left — and a spot in the Masters, The Open and U.S. Amateur on the line — he and 22-year-old Benjamin Saiz-Wenz (3 under) are the two Chileans inside the top 10 ready to continue the success that has been started by previous LAAC winners Matias Dominguez, Toto Gana and Joaquin Niemann.
Niemann, who won the 2018 edition of the tournament in Santiago, Chile, said the victory is one of the biggest reasons he’s on the PGA Tour now.
“It exploded my career,” Niemann said. “I was getting more opportunities, and getting more recognized too because of TV.”
The Chilean pro said he’s been keeping his eye on Saiz-Wenz, who came close to winning this tournament before when he finished tied for sixth in 2020.
“Benjamin has won much in Chile and won the individual South American title in 2020,” ex-LPGA player and current director of the Chilean Golf Federation Paz Echeverria said. “He was one the best Chilean players in 2021.”
Saiz-Wenz rises and falls with every stroke. Watching him play, as he takes off his hat often, runs his hands through his hair and swings a frustrated club in the air after an errant shot, makes it hard to imagine that he once stopped playing this game.
In Chile, like a lot of Latin America, soccer is still king. So at 9 years old, after having played golf since he was a toddler at the course next to his grandfather’s house, Saiz-Wenz decided to try soccer and tennis instead. That lasted six years. At 15, he was back, wondering why he left golf, but also ready to succeed with the skills he had developed playing those other sports.
“Since I started late, the key for me was knowing and accepting that I had to work harder than everyone,” Saiz-Wenz said. “I had to get up earlier than everyone, hit more balls than anyone, to reach the level that the players here have.”
What makes Saiz-Wenz unique at this tournament, besides the fact that he had a truncated golf path, is that he is ready to turn pro — now. The catch? If he becomes the fourth Chilean to win this tournament, he won’t be able to.
“If I don’t win this week, which obviously I hope I win, I will turn pro next week,” Saiz-Wenz said. “This Monday.”
Should he win the tournament and get the automatic bid to the Masters, The Open and the final rounds of the U.S. Open qualifying, however, Saiz-Wenz will need to retain his amateur status to play.
It’s a tricky situation, but as Birke put it, getting to play in all of those tournaments is “the dream.”
“It’s incredible, the doors [winning this tournament] has opened for [the other Chilean players],” said Eduardo Miquel, who coached past winners Niemann and Gana. He coaches Birke, as well. “Hopefully, there’s a fourth Chilean who gets to hoist that trophy and take those opportunities, too.”
Niemann said he hopes the evolution of the tournament will result in more Latino golfers in general getting more opportunities and playing in bigger tournaments in the United States. He knows better than most the snowball effect that can ensue with a victory like this one.
“Hopefully,” Niemann said, “a Chilean wins again.”