Eli Ortego didn’t have a frame of reference last weekend in his second appearance in the Louisiana Golf Association’s State Amateur Championship.
The Broussard product and rising senior at Ascension Episcopal High had played in the 2019 edition of the state’s premier amateur golf event and was hovering near the top 10 after 74-72 opening rounds at Baton Rouge Country Club. That’s before the wheels came off over the weekend when Ortego struggled to a 76-82 finish and wound up 37th.
“I struggled on the weekend last year,” he said, “so this year wasn’t quite the same as last year.”
No kidding. The 18-year-old two-time state high school champion posted 69-68 scores last weekend in the final two rounds and was the surprise tournament leader after a birdie at the par-three 14th hole at Bayou Oaks at City Park in New Orleans. He didn’t know he was the leader at the time, but he knew one of the state’s premier amateur players, defending State Amateur champion John Humphries of Woodworth, was his playing partner in the next-to-last group.
“We kept looking at the group behind us,” Ortego said of the final threesome that included the tournament leaders entering the final round. “I couldn’t tell if they were playing good or bad, but I knew they were slow on the 13th (a par-four and one of the course’s toughest holes) and figured there were some bogeys there. After that birdie on 14, I was really just trying to beat John, and I didn’t know the leaders had fallen that far back.”
Not many knew it, but the 101st State Amateur had turned into a two-player race. Ortego’s birdie at the 14th preceded four closing pars, and Humphries was able to roll in birdies on the 16th and 18th holes to win the title by one shot. Humphries, now a three-time State Amateur winner and the first to win that title in three different decades, finished with a five-under 67 and at 9-under 279 for the four-round event, while Ortego’s closing 68 left him at 8-under 280.
The runner-up finish thrilled family and friends, and no doubt had the same effect on UL golf coach Theo Sliman. Ortego’s strong performance — his second runner-up spot in as many weeks after finishing second at the Future Tour Championship in Greenville, Mississippi — came on the heels of his recent verbal commitment to sign with the Ragin’ Cajuns this fall.
Ortego had no shortage of scholarship offers and visited Mississippi State just before making his decision.
“From the very beginning, UL was going to be high on my list,” he said, “especially after visiting the athletic facilities. Visiting Mississippi State was cool, but on the drive back, that was just too far. The quarantine helped me think a lot about it and helped with my decision. I talked to my parents a lot during that time … they let me do my own thing, they were happy with any of the schools I was considering, but I know they’re happy with it because they know that I’m happy.”
It helped that Ortego has a solid relationship with Sliman, as well as with several members of the current Cajuns, especially sophomore Charlie Flynn, redshirt freshman and fellow local product Matt Weber and Shreveport’s Jake Marler who is in this year’s UL signee class and will enroll this fall.
“The facility they have, coach Theo, having Matt and Charlie on the team and Jake coming in this year, that all kind of played a role in it,” Ortego said. “I think we’re going to be awesome.”
Ironically, Weber had a nearly identical State Amateur experience two years ago between his junior and senior years at St. Thomas More. The Scott product, who redshirted last season, finished as the surprise runner-up in the 2018 state am played at Lafayette’s Oakbourne Country Club — home of the Cajuns’ golf facility.
Ortego double-bogeyed that par-three 14th in Saturday’s third round last weekend but still finished with the three-under 69 that put him in the penultimate Sunday group with Humphries. His final Sunday birdie put him one shot ahead of the field before his closing pars and Humphries’ two clutch late birdies including a near tap-in on the par-five 18th.
“I had birdie putts on all of those last four holes, but they were long and were really two-putts,” he said. “I had about a 20-footer on 18, and I thought it was going in the whole way. I had no idea it was to tie for the lead.
“I didn’t even know John had won until it was posted on the scoreboard. I had to go find him and congratulate him. It wasn’t fun losing, but he’s a great player and it’s kind of fun that I lost to an All-American and a former pro.”
The State Amateur was the Louisiana Golf Association’s first tournament — and maybe Louisiana’s first full-scale statewide sports event — since the coronavirus pandemic.
“Some of the rules that were set up were like, really,” he said, “but it was more than worth it just to be back out there. It felt about as normal as possible. For me it was really different not playing with junior golfers, playing in a cart. It was really a different kind of tournament.”
The pandemic derailed the LHSAA’s spring high school athletic seasons, which was a blow to Ortego and the Ascension Episcopal program. The Blue Gators had won the 2018 Division III boys crown with the youngest team ever to win a state golf title (one sophomore, two freshmen, one eighth grader and one seventh-grader) and easily repeated last spring, and the same lineup was in place for a three-peat before the shutdown.
Fortunately for Ortego, who won the state individual title as a freshman and sophomore in 2018 and 2019, the Gators will still have the quartet dating from the 2018 season returning for next spring’s state event. Other teams weren’t so fortunate.
“It was a bummer,” Ortego said of not getting to play the last half of the spring prep season. “We were lucky that we’re not losing anyone for next year, but I have a lot of friends who were seniors at other schools that won’t have that chance. And all of us getting a four-peat would have been cool.”
The pandemic and the loss of the prep season put a dent in tournament competition for Ortego, but he’ll more than make up for it with a busy summer. The Future Tour event was his first full-scale tournament and was quickly followed by the State Amateur, and next week he’s entered in the prestigious Future Masters in Dothan, Alabama, for the third straight year. The LGA’s Junior Amateur Championship is July 8-10 at Links on the Bayou in Alexandria, and the prestigious Southern Junior Championship is Aug. 12-14 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with a couple of AJGA events mixed in between.
“I didn’t get as many tournament rounds like we would have had in the lead-up to state,” he said, “but I was lucky that I got to play almost every day at Le Triomphe (his home course) and Oakbourne. There’s no substitute for the feelings and the buzz of a tournament. We can play every day, but you can’t replicate that feeling.”