Alvaro Ortiz admitted with a sheepish smile Monday that he was “lucky to finish” his degree last May at the University of Arkansas.
International business is what appears on his diploma. Preparing for pro golf was his vocation.
He had no problem passing his first history test at the Masters.
Readying to compete for the first time this week at Augusta National as the winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship, the 23-year-old who was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, was asked at a news conference whether he could name the last Mexican-born player to compete in the Masters.
It was not a softball query, such as quizzing him about who pulled on the green jacket last year. Mexico’s Augusta drought spans four decades.Ortiz did not hesitate.
“His name is Victor Regalado,” he said. “And the last amateur was Juan Antonio Estrada.”
Ding, ding, ding. Correct, and Ortiz surely gets bonus points for identifying Estrada, who played in three Masters in the 1960s, when Alvaro’s parents were children.
Mexico’s history in the Masters is thinner than a pimento cheese sandwich, and Regalado can’t quite fathom that it took 40 years for a successor from his homeland to drive down Magnolia Lane on his way to the first tee.
“Jeez,” Regaldo, who turns 71 next week, said on the phone Monday morning from his San Diego home. “That’s a long time. It’s unbelievable.”
In the first four LAACs, three of the winners were from Chile and one was from Costa Rica.
Mexico could have been on the board sooner but for Ortiz’s tough luck. Three previous times before winning, he contended in the LAAC — once losing in a playoff and posting another runner-up and a third-place finish.
Ortiz finally got it done in January at the Pete Dye-designed Teeth of the Dog course at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. Dramatically, he shot a 31 on the back nine in the final round to score a 66 and notch a two-stroke victory.
The younger brother of PGA Tour player Carlos Ortiz, named the 2014 Web.com Tour player of the year, Alvaro made his family proud and thrilled those in his country who follow golf.
“When I came back to Mexico after winning, it was all cheers and people were so happy,” Ortiz said. “People were so proud that I was going to be able to put a Mexican flag up there.
“I felt all the love from people and all the support I’ve been receiving from people, in the last couple weeks especially. My phone has been blowing up with good luck messages.”
Regalado, who twice won tournaments on the PGA Tour, is happy for the young man and satisfied to see a record four Mexican members of the PGA Tour this season. But he said Monday that there still are big obstacles to more kids in Mexico catching the golf bug.
“They don’t have the programs to introduce golf to middle-class and poor people,” he said. “If you’re not a member of a country club, there’s no way to be introduced to the game or to practice. Only the wealthy people get to play.
“The Mexican federation is doing a better job, but the kids don’t have the opportunities like they do in San Diego. Any kid who wants to play here can play.”
Ortiz is among the fortunate junior golfers in his country, having grown up playing Guadalajara Country Club with his parents and grandparents.
Following close behind another notable Mexican player in the area, Cesar Sanudo, Regalado won numerous tournaments, including the San Diego City Amateur in 1967 and 1970, before turning pro in ’71.
Regalado earned his first chance to play at Augusta in spectacular fashion. In the 1974 Pleasant Valley Classic in Sutton, Mass., he made a birdie on the last hole to beat then-reigning British Open champion Tom Weiskopf by a stroke.
“One of the best days of my life,” Regalado said.
The next April, he traveled to his first Masters.
“I was a little nervous,” Regalado said. “You see so much in the press about the Masters, how beautiful it is. You go through all this work to get there, and then you just go play.”
That year, Jack Nicklaus staved off Weiskopf and Johnny Miller to win his fifth Masters, and Regalado put on quite the show in his debut.
He birdied the second hole, hit an iron into the cup from the fairway to eagle the third, and birdied the fourth.
“Four holes in and I was leading the tournament,” Regalado said. “You enjoy the moment.”
He eventually tied for 30th with, among others, Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd and Gary Player.
It would take another win, in the 1978 Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open, for Regalado to get his return ticket to Augusta. Before that, he lamented to a San Diego Union reporter that the Masters extended invitations to foreign players each year, but those never went to Mexicans.
“I’m going to have to win to play there again,” Regalado said.
In 1979, he produced another solid showing, tying for 31st behind winner Fuzzy Zoeller. In eight career Masters rounds, Regalado’s best score was a 71 and his worst a 76.
For Ortiz’s first Masters appearance, beginning Thursday, there’s no doubt he has enjoyed better preparation for the challenges of Augusta. As the LAAC champion, he was afforded five practice rounds before this week, and he practiced meticulously, accompanied by his coach, Justin Poynter.
“He made me chip like a thousand balls on every hole,” said Ortiz, who said that in his last outing he spent three hours on each nine.
For Monday’s practice round, Ortiz hooked up to play with 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia, and the takeaway was this: “It’s not about hitting it close or driving it to the perfect spot. It’s more about how the best way to not screw up.”
Ortiz waited nearly a year to turn pro so he could play in the Masters. The day after the tournament, his amateur career will be history.
“I just want to go out there and have fun and enjoy it,” he said. “I’m here with my family. I feel like it couldn’t be a better week to finish my amateur career, so I’m happy with whatever way I play.”
Ortiz did add with a smile that a top-10 finish would be nice. That would mean a return invitation to Augusta, and Mexico would be assured of not waiting another 40 years.