Column: Teen goes from 1-course Caribbean island to Masters

The concept behind the Latin America Amateur Championship when it began in 2015 was for players from the region to create golf heroes for the next generation, and it's a role the latest winner takes seriously.

Aaron Jarvis knows it's a tall order. He also knows anything is possible.

How else to explain how a 19-year-old freshman at UNLV who was No. 1,669 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, who grew up on a Caribbean island with only one 18-hole golf course, could be headed to the Augusta National to play in the Masters?

In this photo provided by the Latin America Amateur Championship, Aaron Jarvis speaks to reporters after winning the Latin America Amateur Championship on Jan. 23, 2022, in La Romana, Dominican Republic. The victory means Jarvis will be the first player from the Cayman Islands to play in the Masters in April. (Enrique BerardiLatin America Amateur Championship via AP)

But there he was Sunday at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, his heart racing as he stood next to the 18th green at Teeth of the Dog.

The hard work presumably was over. Jarvis hit into the sea on the par-3 16th hole and salvaged bogey with a 20-foot putt — “The biggest of my life,” he said — and a two-putt birdie on the final hole gave him a 3-under 69.

Harder still was waiting for three players in the last two groups capable of catching him.

“I was so nervous watching the other guys putt out,” Jarvis said. “I couldn’t breathe.”

One missed from 3 feet. Another chipped long. The last player missed from 7 feet. Jarvis was mobbed by friends from Caribbean nations, later kneeling down with his hands over his face.

The victory gets him into Masters, which no one from the Cayman Islands has ever played.

No one from the self-governing British overseas territory of a mere 100 square miles has ever played in the British Open. He also earned a spot at St. Andrews this summer. Jarvis played the Old Course when he went over to the Junior Open.

But the Masters?

“I watch it every year,” Jarvis said. His strongest memory, like so many others', is Tiger Woods. He is so young that the memory was only three years ago, when Woods claimed a fifth green jacket after four back surgeries.

“I wish I could have watched more history, but that was incredible, a comeback story that was just amazing,” Jarvis said.

He knows a little about amazing journeys, starting with his heritage.

And now, he's looking beyond the perks of winning the Latin America Amateur — the Masters and British Open, the U.S and British Amateurs, exempt into the final stage of U.S. Open qualifying.

“Growing up, there wasn't much golf, just a few of us playing,” he said. "Our golf federation started with juniors. From there, we just kept playing, kept trying to grow the game, and then we started to play some bigger tournaments. Obviously, the Latin America was a big deal for us coming from a small place.”

Jarvis was more interested in soccer in 2013 when North Sound Golf Club — the only 18-hole course on Grand Cayman — hosted the Caribbean Junior Golf Championship. His older brother, Andrew, won the tournament. And just like that, Aaron was hooked. Within three years, he was beating his brother, and he was relentless in trying to get better.

Jarvis headed to Windemere Prep in Orlando, Florida, polishing his game at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy. He won the South Florida Junior Open, and his work ethic and swing got the attention of A.J. McInerney, an assistant at UNLV and now the interim head coach.

Jarvis was the first player McInerney signed in the freshman class.

“Getting a guy like Aaron out of the Cayman Islands, I'm not sure how many people play there,” McInerney said. “He's always saying, ‘345,’ the area code in Cayman. He's so proud of the Cayman Islands and what he represents. And he's becoming a great Rebel. He's going to be a leader for me.”

Jarvis was wearing a UNLV Rebels hat when he he won the Latin America Amateur. He only qualified for three tournaments in his first semester and had to withdraw after one round at one event because of food poisoning.

His last win was just over a year ago, the Christmas Match Play Invitational at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, the nine-hole course on Grand Cayman.

As for his ranking? That was just a number as far as Jarvis was concerned.

“I knew my ranking wasn't the best coming into this event, but I knew I was better than my ranking,” he said. “I just didn't play enough tournaments. I knew I was as good as anyone else in the field, playing first semester of college golf.”

McInerney gathered his Rebels in a van Sunday morning in California to watch the final round at Casa de Campo before their practice round for the Southwestern Invitational. They were more ecstatic than surprised.

“We all knew it was there. We just hadn't seen it yet,” McInerney said. “He works hard and does all the right things. He had the highest team GPA in the fall. It's the little things that show what kind of kid he is.”

Jarvis will be one of two Latin America Amateur winners at the Masters. Joaquin Niemann of Chile won four years ago and since then has won on the PGA Tour and played in the Presidents Cup.

That's still a long way off for Jarvis.

The template for the Latin America was the Asia-Pacific Amateur, whose past champions include Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and two others at Augusta this year, Takumi Kanaya and Keita Nakajima, the No. 1 amateur in the world.

Japan, and most of Asia, is more advanced in golf than Latin America countries, certainly a tiny island in the Caribbean about 250 miles to the south of Cuba and to the west of Jamaica.

It takes time to cultivate heroes. Jarvis embraces the chance.

“It means the world to me to represent the Cayman Islands,” he said. “And hopefully, I can change Cayman golf and get more younger people involved and hopefully grow the sport."

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