LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic — Santiago De la Fuente del Valle is a name that, as the 20-year-old Mexican amateur puts it, feels straight out of a telenovela. De la Fuente’s story, too, seems like it was put together by a room of writers. It begins in a town in Mexico where the main industry is furniture making and his family’s business is making furniture packaging. It involves a book about Tiger Woods, an abandoned golf course and a dash of Canelo Alvarez.
On Friday, in the second round of the Latin America Amateur Championship at Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog course, De la Fuente was thrust into the spotlight after shooting 5-under 67 — the second-best round of the day — to jump from even to 5-under and a tie for third going into the weekend. He sits 4 behind leader Julian Perico.
“Do I look at the camera or at you?” he asked a reporter, as another cameraman motioned him to move over to his left. “I feel like I’m at school.”
With a bid to the Masters and The Open going to the winner this week, De la Fuente could become the second Mexican to win the tournament, after Alvaro Ortiz triumphed at Casa de Campo in 2019. De la Fuente, ranked 1,068th in the world, has come a long way from learning golf at a nine-hole course in Ocotlan, Jalisco, one that was created by a cigarette-filter company that needed a place to displace the water.
His dad, Gerardo, bought Santiago some Snoopy golf clubs when he was 3 years old.
“That’s where I fell in love,” De la Fuente said.
How it transpired remains a bit of a mystery, even to Santiago himself.
“My dad shoots 120,” De la Fuente said with a laugh. “I think he saw a lot of videos and read a lot, because not even I know how he did it, but he trained me until I was 16.”
Gerardo De la Fuente knows exactly how it happened. As Santiago’s older brother got into golf, he would bring toddler-aged Santiago to the course with him.
“He was born with a club in his hand,” Gerardo said.
The elder De la Fuente had read a book about Tiger Woods. Through that, he learned that Woods’ father, Earl, had put a putter in Tiger’s hands from an early age so he could grow familiar with the feeling of holding it. So that’s what Gerardo did with Santiago. That is, until he grew old enough to complain that he wanted to use other clubs.
“He grew up in a place where there really isn’t a culture of golf,” said Santiago Casado, the coach for the Mexican Golf Federation. “The culture of golf he had was planted by his father.”
That course in Ocotlan has since closed, but De la Fuente hasn’t stopped. He is supported by Atlas Club in Guadalajara, which granted him a membership after he started winning tournaments and now supports him financially. He also plays often at the Guadalajara Country Club, where he tied the course record, shared with PGA Tour pro Carlos Ortiz. Boxer Canelo Alvarez plays there too.
“I’m not sure if he says hi to say hi or if he knows who I am,” De la Fuente said.
While five players in the field this week attend and play at the University of Arkansas, De la Fuente plays at Arkansas Tech. In one season there he’s already won a Division II national title and been named an All-American.
As De la Fuente started getting interest from colleges in the United States a few years ago, he told his parents that the top factor was how much of a scholarship he was going to get. He was struck by how expensive an education could be in the States, so when Arkansas Tech coach Luke Calcatera reached out over social media and offered him a full ride, it was a no-brainer.
“He’s earned every penny of that scholarship,” Calcatera said.
The coach has walked rounds with Santiago before and raves about the shots the player has been able to create when in trouble.
“He plays with a lot of creativity and goes off what he sees as opposed to a player who has just one type set shot.”
Casado sees a lot of countryman and PGA pro Abraham Ancer, who is currently ranked 20th in the world, in De la Fuente’s game. On Friday morning, he witnessed De la Fuente on the range trying all kinds of different shots. Had someone been watching him for the first time, they might have thought he was struggling when really he just enjoys trying things.
“He’s a player that does things that can’t be taught,” Casado said. “He learned visually; he’s got a lot of imagination and feeling.”
That malleability and imagination has helped De la Fuente this week at Casa de Campo. After an opening-round 72, he found success driving low stingers on the holes that ran next to the windy Caribbean, setting him up for six birdies.
“I love inventing shots … when they work,” De la Fuente said, citing the likes of Seve Ballesteros and his freewheeling style. “I think that style can be an advantage or a disadvantage. But for me it’s an advantage.”