June 18, 2014

Air Capital Classic: Top tour golfer Carlos Ortiz is a fresh face

If your imagery of the top performing golfer on the Tour this season is a grizzled veteran hardened by scores of battle scars, try again.

If your imagery of the top performing golfer on the Tour this season is a grizzled veteran hardened by scores of battle scars, try again.

Carlos Ortiz has a soft voice, a boyish face and, well, he’s a 23-year-old rookie from Mexico.

Ortiz, who will start the 25th Air Capital Classic just after noon Thursday at Crestview Country Club, has packed a lot into four months on the developmental tour. Since turning professional after graduating from North Texas, Ortiz has won twice, added three top-10 finishes and experienced PGA Tour life after receiving an invitation to play in the Memorial Tournament three weeks ago.

“A little bit,” Ortiz said when asked if he’s surprised himself with the fast start to his pro career. “But I’ve worked hard and this is what I’ve prepared for.”

Ortiz has already locked up a spot on the 2015 PGA Tour with $365,469 in earnings. With another victory this season, he can become the first golfer since Michael Sim five years ago to earn a direct promotion to the big tour.

Some might say Ortiz is too young to realize how difficult it’s all supposed to be. But Ortiz, who grew up in Guadalajara, knows better.

As a junior golfer at Guadalajara Country Club, Ortiz observed former LPGA Tour star Lorena Ochoa honing the skills that made her a standout at the University of Arizona and a 27-time winner as a professional. Ochoa was the world’s top-ranked female golfer from 2007-10.

“I grew up watching her practice and play before she was anybody,” Ortiz said. “She worked really hard and made her dreams come true. … I was able to watch that up close, and that was a good example for me.”

Now, Ochoa, who retired from competitive golf at age 28 to start a family, is among those following Ortiz’s career with interest. He finished third in the tour’s season opener in Colombia, then notched his first victory at the Panama Claro Championship in March.

Three weeks later, Ortiz seized the No. 1 spot on the money list with a victory at the El Bosque Mexico Championship in front of a large group of family and friends.

“My whole last year in college was aiming me to prepare for that,” Ortiz said. “I made some swing changes during my senior year, so I was ready to go by the end of last summer.

“It just worked out perfect, and I’ve been playing great this year.”

Ortiz’s nine starts have even provided a big-enough window for him to experience failure. After sharing or holding the outright lead for the first three rounds of the South Georgia Classic, Ortiz settled for third as Blayne Barber won the tournament.

A victory would have landed Ortiz the PGA Tour’s battlefield promotion.

“I hadn’t been in that situation where I’d been in the eye of everybody, giving interviews,” Ortiz said. “I think I learned a lot. I learned way more than if I had won that week.”

During a break in the schedule, Ortiz made his PGA Tour debut with a sponsor exemption at the Memorial, a tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus. He shot a 68 in the second round and made the cut, tying for 65th.

“It just helped me realize I’m close to where I need to be,” Ortiz said. “I still need to work a little bit harder on my mental game, but I’m ready to be there next year.”

Ortiz bypassed the Cleveland Open to rest his sore back. He also spent time in Dallas, where he now lives, working with instructor Justin Poynter.

His focus the remainder of the season will center on winning a third tournament or playing good enough to maintain his No. 1 spot on the money list.

“What I saw at the Memorial was it’s still golf. The names are just different on the scoreboard,” Ortiz said. “The same thing happened when I came out here from college. Amateur golf in the States is at such a good level that if you can win out there, you can win out here.”

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