Only five Mexican-born players had ever made it to the PGA Tour. Two of them won tournaments a generation before he was born, the most recent title by Victor Delgado in 1978 at the Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad City Open. Mexico’s golfing icon was a woman, Lorena Ochoa, who grew up at his home club in Guadalajara.
The male players Ortiz idolized — Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Tiger Woods — he had seen only on TV or in magazines.
So imagine how he felt the day he made his PGA Tour debut.
Ortiz had already won twice on the Web.com Tour last spring when he received an invitation to play in the Memorial. He walked into the clubhouse at Muirfield Village, recognizing players he knew only by name. His awe turned into anxiety when he saw his idol, tournament host Jack Nicklaus.
“Oh my god, it was pretty exciting,” Ortiz said. “When you see them in real life it’s different. And first thing when I got in the clubhouse, I saw Jack Nicklaus right there. I got scared. They told me to go shake his hand, but I got scared so I went upstairs to my locker because I didn’t know what to do.
“But then I came back and said, ‘Thank you for having me, for the invitation.’ And he was really nice.”
Ortiz rallied with a 68 in the second round to make the cut at the Memorial, and then he returned to the Web.com Tour to finish a remarkable year. He picked up his third victory late in the season for an instant promotion to the big leagues, and he was voted Web.com Tour player of the year.
The 23-year-old is paving his own way now with high hopes. He has made the cut in both his starts in his rookie season, closing with a 65 to tie for 18th in Las Vegas. He is headed to Malaysia next week before gearing up for the OHL Classic at Mayakoba. It will be the eighth year for Mexico to host a PGA Tour event, and the first time it had a local player with so much promise.
Just don’t get the idea Ortiz was ever on the fast track to stardom.
Ochoa has been around him for the better part of a decade, though he didn’t immediately stand out. Ochoa would come home from college at Arizona and practice with the juniors at Guadalajara Country Club, and she recalls a little boy who loved his golf.
“He was there every afternoon,” Ochoa said in a telephone interview from Mexico City. “I used to see the little kids running around and practicing and playing. He was just a little one, a happy guy. Every time I came home, I see him growing. He was very skinny, very tall. And he was hitting the ball very hard.”
Ortiz made a few trips to America for junior events, though he never played well enough to get anyone’s attention.
Brad Stacke, the golf coach at North Texas, managed to find him with a little help and some intuition.
Stacke had a player from Mexico named Kenji Maruyama who had played on his junior college team in Iowa, and the coach told him to keep an eye out for any promising young players from south of the border.
“He called me three weeks later and said, ‘I’ve got a player for you. He’s really good,'” Stacke said. “I said, ‘Why don’t you go play with him?’ So he went and played with Carlos and he said, ‘He’s really good.’ I said, ‘What did he shoot?’ He said, ‘He’s really good.'”
Once the coach finally got a number out of him, he paused. Ortiz had shot 81. But it was enough of an endorsement for Stacke to remember the name, especially a few weeks later when Ortiz had rounds of 63-65-67 to set a 54-hole scoring record in a Mexican junior tournament he won.
“I was sold,” Stacke said.
Ortiz headed to Denton, Texas, for four years he wouldn’t trade. He won three times as a sophomore. He qualified for the U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills. He earned a degree in international studies. And he started to believe he was good enough to achieve everything he had dreamed.
“It took me a while when I came to the States,” Ortiz said. “I looked up to all these guys. To play with them made me realize I was good enough. People always tell me, ‘You’re good enough,’ but I need to see it with my eyes.”
He was hard to ignore last year on the Web.com Tour. He picked up his first win in Panama with a 66-64 weekend. Playing a month later before a home crowd in Mexico, he recovered from an opening 74 with rounds of 67-66-68. Ortiz nearly lost a three-shot lead until he birdied the last hole to beat Justin Thomas.
Could he be the male version of Ochoa? That might be asking too much of anyone.
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Ortiz looked up to Ochoa as the best player in her sport and the best person in golf. Ochoa was renowned for her humility and her charity even as she rose to No. 1 in the world. And there is the pressure of playing for a country with a limited golfing heritage.
Ochoa still keeps in touch with that little kid, the “happy guy” she saw running around the golf club.
“I emailed him right away when he won his last tournament,” Ochoa said. “He said, ‘You can feel what we all felt when we were following you.'”