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Golf: Making the Turn - Ortego places 2nd as State Amateur is held with virus safeguards

 Dan McDonald, The Advertiser, June 23, 2020

The good thing was that the Louisiana Golf Association’s premier event, the State Amateur Championship, had yet another close finish on Sunday.

The better thing for the Acadiana area is that one of its own, junior standout Eli Ortego of Broussard, was in contention down the stretch and had the individual lead late in the state’s premier amateur golf event before finishing as runner-up.

And the best thing about the State Amateur is that it was actually staged and competed — something that was a big question mark only a couple of months ago.

“There was a lot going on behind the scenes three months ago,” said LGA executive director Logan Ray. “We had created a task force to examine if we could even conduct a championship in June. At the time, everybody was canceling and postponing, and we had to postpone two events that were scheduled for April and May.”

 

The coronavirus pandemic that has put so many events and activities on hold since mid-March affected the way the LGA conducted business, and dropped the organization into uncharted waters. Not only was last weekend’s State Amateur Louisiana’s first true statewide sports event since the lifting of initial stay-at-home orders, it was also the first state amateur championship conducted in any U.S. state since the COVID-19 outbreak.

It was also held in Orleans Parish, an early epicenter for the virus and an area which did not move into Phase 2 of quarantine lifting until last weekend.

Ray said the LGA relied on the “Back to Golf” guidelines put out by the CDC in conjunction with the USGA and the PGA of America.

“It was a challenge,” he said, “but I’m very proud of the way our team responded and the way the players reacted. It really was a great showcase for the City Park course and I’ve heard nothing but positive comments.

“Our goal was from the moment a player arrived on site, they would only touch their own equipment and that’s it. Eliminating touch points was critical.”

Players were alone in carts and did not have to touch flagsticks, with hole equipment raised so players could easily remove balls, and no bunker rakes were on the course. A local rule allowed players to lift and clean shots from bunkers after smoothing sand with their feet, to eliminate bad lies from unraked bunkers. Players had to sign a waiver of liability before going onto the course.

The LGA staff and the staff at Bayou Oaks at City Park course in New Orleans also had to do a lot of things differently from “normal” tournaments. Staffers had personal protective equipment and wore masks when inside while practicing social distancing themselves.

Ray said he was hoping the State Amateur would be a model for other golf associations since it was the first to be conducted post-pandemic.

“We thought we had a good plan in pace and it turns out we did,” he said, “but game day, inevitably something’s going to happen that’s going to throw you for a loop and you’re going to have to react. We had the guidelines as our blueprint and we felt we could do it safely.”

The 101st annual tournament’s on-course play was filled with highlights, including John Humphries winning his second straight State Amateur title and the third of his career. Humphries became the fifth player ever, and the first since 1968, to win the LGA’s premier event three times, while also becoming the first to ever win it in three different decades.

But it wasn’t easy, and a lot of that was due to Ortego’s standout play. The rising senior at Ascension Episcopal, a two-time LHSAA state high school individual champion, was part of a group of six players that shared the lead at one point in Sunday’s final nine holes.

Humphries finished with a 70-72-70-67—279 (-9) score, shooting five-under in Sunday’s final round, while Ortego almost matched that with a 70-73-69-68—280 (-8) total including his four-under final round

Ortego, who led Ascension to back-to-back state team titles in 2018 and 2019 (the 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic), was paired up with Humphries in the next-to-last group Sunday. Humphries was three back and Ortego four back of the 54-hole leaders, 2017 champion Derek Busby of Ruston and 2011 winner Greg Berthelot of Baton Rouge. But by the time the final three groups were halfway through the South Course’s back nine Sunday, there was a logjam at the top of the leader board.

In fact, Ortego birdied the par-three 14th hole to get to eight-under before stringing four straight pars over the final four holes. His birdie at the 14th came approximately the same time that Grayson Gilbert of Monroe was bogeying the 13th to fall back to -7. Then, when Humphries bogeyed the 15th and Busby followed with another bogey at 15 in the final group, Ortego suddenly found himself in the individual lead with three holes to go.

However, Humphries birdied the par-four 16th hole to tie for the lead, and after both parred the par-three 17th, Humphries rolled in a birdie putt on the par-five 18th hole to win by a single shot. Busby and Gilbert each finished one stroke behind Ortego and tied for third at seven-under.

Along with Ortego’s stellar play, the State Amateur was a good tournament for the local university. UL had three players — Matt Weber of Scott, Cole Kendrick of Natchitoches and incoming freshman Jake Marler of Shreveport — all finish in the top 20 individually. All three posted a final two-over 290 score to tie for 19th in the 142-player field, with Kendrick shooting one-over 73 in the final round and Weber and Marler shooting two-over 74.

Weber, ironically, also finished as runner-up in the State Amateur in 2018 between his junior and senior prep seasons, when the LGA’s premier event was last held locally at Oakbourne Country Club.

Former Cajun Andrew Noto of Luling, who played at UL from 2008-12, shot two-under 70 in the final round to finish in ninth place at one-under 287. The low 30 finishers earn automatic exemption into next year’s field for the State Amateur, which will be held July 22-25 at Squire Creek in Choudrant.

“Making the Turn” appears each Wednesday in the Daily Advertiser through November. Clubs, courses and individuals with information about local golf events may email Dan McDonald, editorial director at Golfballs.com, at danmcdonald@cox.net, FAX to (337) 857-8763 or call (337) 857-8754 and leave a message with phone number.