Omar Morales has two career wins at UCLA. (UCLA Athletics)
The Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC) has given its winner an incredible opportunity to play in some of the biggest tournaments in professional golf.
The Masters, U.S. Open, and Open Championship will welcome the LAAC winner in 2024. A veritable treasure trove of items on golf’s competitive bucket list.
Omar Morales, the UCLA junior from Puebla, Mexico, enters the event with some expectations as one of the highest-ranked players in the field.
It wasn’t an easy path to get to this point for Morales. The highly touted junior, who was the No. 1 ranked junior in his country in 2019, had a tough rookie year in college. He recorded just one top ten and one other top 20 finish.
His sophomore year didn’t start any better, although the new coach, Armen Kirakossian, saw a talented player who dominated in preseason qualifying. Morales passed with flying colors and earned a spot in the season's opening event.
He finished dead last.
“I was a little bit shocked,” said Kirakossian. “I was seeing a hyper-emotional player who was really letting his emotions get the better of him.”
With this new information about Morales, Kirakossian put on his coaching hat and got to work with the young, talented player.
“I started talking to him about my coaching philosophy, the things that I saw and where I think he can make improvements and get better,” Kirakossian said. “Honestly, to his credit, he really dug in and started asking a lot of questions and started putting in the work necessary for him to start making that turn for the better.”
Slowly but surely, Morales made improvements throughout his sophomore fall. As his mindset improved, so did his scores. Morales capped off the season with a win in the season’s final event - the El Macero Classic. Scores of 69-67-67 were a far cry from the kid who finished in last place the previous September with rounds of 73-73-80.
Related: Latin American Amateur Championship Preview
The wave of momentum helped Morales check another box on his golfing bucket list. He qualified for a PGA Tour event, and not just any event, his home country’s national championship. The Mexico Open was the first taste of PGA Tour golf, and while the first round proved difficult - he signed for a 74 - Morales bounced back with 67, missing the cut by just one shot.
“I mean, I don't think I've ever seen such a drastic change in my coaching career in a matter of less than a year,” Kirakossian said.
That late April PGA Tour experience, along with a bit of kismet, gave Morales a summer to remember.
After making it through local qualifying, Morales was one step closer to playing in the U.S. Open. Lucky for him, his final qualifying site was Hillcrest CC. A course just down the road from the UCLA campus and one that Morales likes a lot.
“We were thinking his conference was rolling. He's at Hillcrest. You never know, he could actually do this thing,” Kirakossian said.
He certainly did it. Morales shot 65-65 to earn medalist honors and a spot in the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club.
For all the great shots it takes to earn the privilege to play in the U.S. Open, Kirakossian remembers a moment when a bad shot might have broken Morales nine months earlier.
“It was the 13th hole,” Kirakossian recalls. “I think it was his fourth hole of his second round. He drives it into a fairway bunker. He lays up and then spins a wedge off the green. He doesn't get up and down and makes a six on a really easy par five.”
This was the moment. 22 holes into a 36-hole qualifier, and Morales had two options. Spin out of control and lose his cool, or dig deep and battle through it.
He dug deep and righted the ship. With his brother on the bag, Morales finished off the job.
That launched Morales into the spotlight when the U.S. Open rolled around because he had a bit of experience at Los Angeles CC. The UCLA team has access to the club a couple of times a month. To add to Morales’ dream week, the USGA gave him the first tee time on Thursday, and he hit the first shot of the tournament.
Kirakossian was on the bag for Morales in the U.S. Open. It was his second time caddying for a player in the U.S. Open. He caddied in 2018 at Shinnecock for an Arizona State player.
This was a different type of experience being so close to campus. The UCLA alums were vocal in their support for the young Bruin.
“I was overwhelmed by the support. Walking down and hearing people cheering on Omar, seeing all of our members from the different clubs that we have the privilege of playing, coming out and supporting Omar, even the LACC staff,” Kirakossian said. “I think it validates why they why they give us access to their club and allow us to play.”
That wasn’t it, though; Morales opened with a 3-under 32 on the front nine with three birdies and six pars. For a brief stint, the Mexican amateur's name sat atop the U.S. Open leaderboard. A bit of familiarity with the golf course certainly helped Morales make that fast start, as the UCLA golf team has access to the course usually two Mondays a month. Morales recorded a team-best 66 there during one practice round.
However, the last 27 holes didn’t go as Morales hoped, and he missed the cut. After such an auspicious start, the lessons learned were vital. Amateurs playing in professional majors don’t leave with trophies; they leave with experience and lessons.
Morales returned to campus in the fall with some newfound confidence but also an empty tank. He didn’t play well in the opening event - The Husky Invitational - and lost his team slot for the Hamptons Invitational at Maidstone.
“He was just emotionally spent,” Kirakossian said. “After the spring and then the Mexico Open and then qualifying and playing in the U.S. Open. It all caught up to him.”
Instead, Kirakossian brought him to Long Island as an individual. Morales didn’t waste the cross-country plane ticket; he finished in fifth place.
It was another moment where Morales was tested by the game of golf.
“He obviously came in with super high expectations. And he came out, and he played pretty poorly in his first tournament,” Kirakossian said. “I think that may have been a blessing in disguise because it allowed us to have a great conversation about humility.”
“Everything is earned in this game every single day. And just because now you're ranked better because you play in the US Open and just because you played a PGA Tour event in Mexico and you won a golf tournament, it only gets harder.”
The second collegiate win at the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate Invitational. He wasn't even on the course when he found out he won, instead it came while refreshing the live scoring in a Mediterranean restaurant in Atlanta. His teammates gathered around as they grabbed a bit to eat before heading to the airport. A bogey on the last hole by Algot Kleen dropped him into a tie with Morales.
“Everybody in the restaurant had no idea what was going on; this whole table of people just erupted out of nowhere. It was awesome,” Kirakossian said. “The owner was so stoked. He felt like he was a part of the team for a minute."
The upward momentum seems to be happening again for Morales. And now, he’s prepping for the LAAC, a tournament that would create another summer to remember.
One might think that Morales has a few LAAC appearances under his belt, but he doesn’t. His first and only time playing in the event came in 2020 when he finished T24 at Mayakoba’s El Camaleón course.
“He's been preparing well, so I fully expect him to go in there and then give it his best shot,” Kirakossian said. “He's never been to Panama, but I think he's obviously going there hungry to try to get a win.”
It seems like Morales has the talent, drive, and mindset to compete at the highest level. There will be a lot of people from Mexico to LACC to UCLA refreshing the leaderboard and tuning in to see if Morales can earn a few more major appearances this summer.
The LAAC will air on ESPN and ESPN News. It will also be streamed live at Laacgolf.com:
Thursday, January 18th: 2 p.m. - 5 p.m. ET
Friday, January 19th: 2 p.m. - 5 p.m. ET
Saturday, January 20th: 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. ET
Sunday, January 21st: 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. ET
ABOUT THE Latin America Amateur
Founded by the Masters Tournament, The R&A and
the USGA, the LAAC was established to further
develop amateur golf in South America, Central
America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The LAAC is a
72-hole stroke play event open to a field of 108
amateur players in Latin America, chosen by their
respective national federations according to their
World Amateur Golf Ranking. Past winners of the
championship, as well as last year’s top-five
finishers, are automatically entered into this year’s
The LAAC champion annually receives an invitation
to compete in the Masters at Augusta National Golf
Club, the U.S. Open and the British Open. The
champion is also awarded full exemptions into The
Championship, the US Amateur Championship and
any other USGA amateur championship for which he
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