LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic — For Arkansas assistant golf coach Barrett Lais, the initial recruiting pitch to try to get players from outside the United States to come to Fayetteville often begins with having to deal with a familiar remark.
“A lot of people from Latin America said, ‘We’ve never heard of Arkansas,'” Lais said. “That was the difficult part because we’re in the middle of the country. Our weather isn’t unbelievable, we have all four seasons. So, how do we go down there and recruit them and sell them on this?”
Lais and head coach Brad McMakin realized quickly that there were things they needed to do to counter their location. And they noticed that there was a trickle-down effect, too. Get one player from a Latin American country and another might come. Win and a few more might follow. What began with Luis Garza, Alvaro Ortiz, and even back as far as Nicolas Echavarria in 2012, is paying dividends now.
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“For me, [Garza, Ortiz and Echavarria] pushed me to go to Arkansas, and we’re such good friends that I trusted them,” said Peru’s Julian Perico, the No. 2 player in South America. “So I went there and brought the rest with me.”
The result has been a continued flow of Latin American players to Arkansas, including No. 43 in the world, Mateo Fernandez de Oliveira, and five of the top 25 players in South America — all of whom will be playing at this year’s Latin American Amateur Championship, which begins Thursday at Casa de Campo (11 a.m. ET, ESPN2). The winner of the event earns a spot in the Masters, as well as The Open and the U.S. Amateur.
From Arkansas to North Texas to schools across the country, the pipelines for golf between Latin American countries and colleges in the United States have been developing. In total, 51 different colleges are represented at LAAC this year, with 36 players in the field either active or committed college players.
“There’s nothing really that stops a kid from going anywhere they want to go,” Florida Atlantic University head coach Mark Leon said. “That being said, with international kids, it’s pretty common that if you look on a team and you see a kid from one foreign nation, there’ll probably be others either on the roster.”
In his first season at FAU, Leon — who recruited several Latin American players at Florida, where he coached before — will be coaching three Latin American players. Two of them, the Dominican Republic’s Juan Cayro Delgado and Brazil’s Guilherme Grinberg, will be playing in this year’s LAAC tournament.
Leon notes that oftentimes, for as much as a coach can recruit, players will follow their friends, countrymen or players who have had great experiences at specific programs or with specific coaches. It’s how North Texas head coach Brad Stracke was able to find a few players in Mexico once PGA players like Sebastian Munoz and Carlos Ortiz succeeded coming out of his program and recommended Stracke and North Texas to fellow countrymen.
“I think that helped me feel like it was the right place,” said Ecuador’s Philippe Thorin, who is committed to North Texas and will play in this year’s LAAC. “If those players were able to go through that university and make it to the PGA tour, that motivated me to believe I could do the same.”
“There’s always been a huge talent pool down there,” Stracke, who said he watches the LAAC every year to see if there are players he can recruit, said. “I don’t speak Spanish myself. But I do have some connections down in South America and Mexico.”
The language differences are a running joke among the players and coaches at Arkansas. Lais said he told players he wanted to learn to speak Spanish by the time they graduated.
“They’re gonna hold me to it,” Lais said. “I’m trying! I get bits and pieces, but I’m not fluent at all.”
Language is only one piece of the cultural puzzle. For players who are leaving behind lifestyles and families in their home countries to play golf in a place they’ve never been, how coaches approach things once the players get to campus is just as important as what they do in getting them there.
“We understand that half of the deal in college is this transition to make sure players are comfortable and feel involved and included,” Lais said. “We do family dinners at our houses, we take guys out quite a bit to restaurants. We play a lot of cards and just are hanging out with them, getting to know them more on a personal level than just golf.”
Perico said he feels right at home in Arkansas. The food from home, though, he still misses daily.
“I don’t really care where you’re from,” said Andrew Danna, the head coach at Florida Gulf Coast University who coached 2017 LAAC winner Toto Gana at Lynn University and will coach 2020 LAAC participant Lukas Rossler from Chile this coming spring. “I just try to treat every person the same and get to know their story, get to know how they like to do things.”
That connection breeds the kind of familiarity Danna says attracts players from the same Latin American countries to follow other players to certain colleges. Perico himself has enjoyed how the Arkansas coaches trusted him and other players to recommend other Latino players to bring into the team.
“It’s like a big family,” Perico said, noting the pipeline that also exists with Latin American players on the Arkansas’ women’s team. “It’s a great place to be a Latino.”
For Guatemala’s Miguel Leal, who signed with Florida and is one of the few players at LAAC representing the Central American country, he feels a sense of responsibility that his arrival in the United States could open the door for him to mentor and connect future Guatemalan golfers to Florida and other programs, especially given the lack of infrastructure and exposure there. His hope is that if he plays well, he’ll start his own pipeline.