By Brian Wacker
A week ago, 20-year-old Joaquin Niemann of Chile became the youngest non-American winner on the PGA Tour since 1923. Sunday, 26-year-old Sebastian Munoz became the first Colombian-born player to win on tour since Camilo Villegas.
Quite the fortnight for Latin American golf.
“[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 after his playoff victory over Sungjae Im at the Sanderson Farms Championship in Jackson, Miss. “That we’re here, we’re PGA Tour members, and we play to win.”
For decades, Latin American athletes have been making a mark in Major League Baseball, and in more recent years the NBA.
They are starting to more in golf, too. And it hasn’t been an accident.
Golf has always been a global game, but in recent years the PGA Tour has looked to expand its footprint in Latin America, most notably with the launch of PGA Tour Latinoamerica in 2012. The top five finishers on the developmental circuit’s Order of Merit each season earn status on the Korn Ferry Tour (formerly the Web.com Tour), with the money leader fully exempt. Players finishing sixth through 50th retain Latinoamerica status for the next season as they try to work their way toward the PGA Tour
Munoz was one of those players.
After turning pro in 2015, Munoz won twice on the Latinoamerica’s Developmental Series, which exempted him into the first half of the 2016 PGA Tour Latinoamerica season. Playing on a sponsor’s exemption in the Club Colombia Championship in his hometown of Bogota on the Web.com Tour, though, Munoz earned a Web.com card and went on to end the season 22nd on that tour’s money list to earn a PGA Tour card for 2017-’18.
Once there, he proved he belonged. Eventually.
At The Greenbrier in his rookie year, Munoz opened with a 61 and led by two during the last round before finishing third. Even so, he failed to keep his card that season and returned to the Web.com. Once there, he was buoyed by two runner-up finishes and a third-place performance en route to a 12th-place finish on the money list to again get back to the PGA Tour for 2018-’19.
This time, he took advantage of the opportunity.
Though he missed nine cuts in 25 starts, Munoz did register five top-10s, including a T-9 at the Barbasol Championship followed by an 11th-place finish at the Barracuda Championship. Needing to survive the cut at the season-ending Wyndham Championship to have a chance at retaining his card, he did, finishing T-48, which was good enough to end the season 124th in the FedEx Cup standings and make the Playoffs for the first time.
Then came this week in Mississippi.
Coming off a T-7 at the season-opening Military Tribute at The Greenbrier, Munoz shot a third-round 63 to take a one-shot lead into the final round at the Country Club of Jackson, a course where he’d made his first career start as a member of the tour in 2016, tying for 35th.
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On Sunday, Munoz fared a little better. He poured in a 15-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Im, the reigning PGA Tour rookie of the year, then beat him on the first extra hole with a par on the 18th.
“I was lucky enough to keep my focus on 18,” Munoz said. “When I had that big putt, I was just thinking about striking it and not the perks, how my life could change and things like that.”
The spoils are bountiful: A trip to Maui for the winners-only Sentry Tournament of Champions, invites to the Masters, PGA Championship and Players, and job security on the PGA Tour through 2022.
And to think it might have never happened.
When Munoz was 15, he’d become frustrated with golf and he got discouraged with his game. The possibility of going to the United States to continue his education, however, provided a boost. He got a scholarship to the University of North Texas, where he met Carlos Ortiz, a junior at the time.
“The first couple years I had the talent but didn’t put the hard work at it,” said Munoz, who grew up on a rubber-tree farm in Colombia and planned to go into the family business. “I never really thought I was going to be a PGA Tour professional.”
Then he watched Ortiz win three times on the Web.com Tour and make his way to the PGA Tour.
“I’m like, ‘Wait. I know he’s good, but I can compete with him,’ ” Munoz said. “So in a sense he kind of made me believe and realize that I’m just as good and I could do it as well.”
Just as other Latin Americans whom had come before him had proved inspirational to future generations—from Roberto De Vicenzo to Angel Cabrera to Eduardo Romero to Villegas, to Jhonattan Vegas.
Now Niemann and Munoz are winners, the first two Latin American golfers to win in consecutive weeks in PGA Tour history. Ortiz, who was in contention down the stretch in Mississippi, tied for fourth.
“Life works in weird ways,” Munoz said. “I never thought this was going to be my path, but here I am.”