By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Joaquin Niemann spent his youth growing up in Chile trying to follow in the footsteps of Mito Pereira, who didn’t exactly make it easy the way he kept winning prestigious amateur golf events in the U.S. and Scotland and points in between.
Niemann sure did a nice job following Pereira’s path in the opening round of the PGA Championship.
Two of a record six Latin American players in the field, Neimann and Pereira each shot rounds of 2-under 70 at Southern Hills, leaving them just three shots back of leader Rory McIlroy heading into Friday’s second round.
“I remember when I was probably 12, 13, and he was probably a couple years older, and he would win everything in Chile,” Niemann recalled. “He would come to the States and play the Junior World, and I think he won that, too. For me and all my friends that we, like, grew up playing together, seeing Mito, it was like, ‘Oh, there’s Mito.’ He was impressive.”
Pereira stepped away from the game for a while before coming back to it, and now he’s playing better than ever. He made four birdies during his round Thursday, including three in a span of five holes on the back side.
“It’s nice to see on the first page two Chilean flags,” Niemann said, “and a Mexican flag, too.”
Niemann may not believe it, but Pereira admitted Thursday that he always knew who was chasing him growing up.
“Yeah, I think it was mutual. We both kept feeding each other,” he said of Niemann. “Obviously he got here first. I turned pro first, I got to the Latin American, Korn Ferry (tours) first, so it was like we were all trying to feed each other. And then when he got up here and just played amazing golf, you just see how close it is to get here.”
There is a rich history of Latin American players in professional golf, but few have contended in major championships. And only two, both from Argentina, have won: Roberto De Vicenzo by two shots over Jack Nicklaus in the 1967 British Open at Hoylake, and Angel Cabrera, who won the U.S. Open in 2007 and the Masters two years later.
Yet the latest crop could soon become a force in the game’s biggest events.
As soon as this weekend, in fact.
Abraham Ancer of Mexico, who has made the cut in all four majors and tied for eighth in last year’s PGA, also got off to a strong start with 67 on Thursday. That left him in a tie for fourth behind McIlroy, Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge.
“I felt like I played really, really well for maybe like, a 5-under round,” Ancer said, “but I’m never going to be asking too much after that. I know this is a tough golf course and it can go the other way quickly.”
It did for countryman Carlos Ortiz, who opened with 79. But otherwise, all the Latin Americans fared well.
Sebastian Munoz of Colombia opened with 74, same as Tiger Woods, and Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas shot 73, leaving both ahead of PGA Tour player of the year Patrick Cantlay and four-time major winner Brooks Koepka.
“We’re basically a team,” Pereira said of the Latin American contingent. “We come from another part of the world, so we come here and we just support each other. Try to sometimes share housing. So we have a really good relationship.”
Ancer has won a World Golf Championship event, Vegas is a three-time winner on tour, and Ortiz and Munoz also have wins to their credit. Niemann might be the hottest of them all, winning the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in February and making the cut at the Masters to go along with his 2019 title at The Greenbrier.
“Definitely, golf in Latin America is getting bigger,” he said. “I think everybody in South America is on the same page. I think everybody, all the young players seeing us up here playing on TV every week, I think it motivates a lot of the kids.
“We didn’t have that in Chile back in the day,” Niemann said. “We never see a professional from Chile playing in Chile. We obviously have Camilo (Villegas), Jhonny from Latin America, but now I think having players from all over the continent in South America is really good for golf in our region.”
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