Bremerton, Wash. – From the time he could barely stand, Nicolas Echavarria had a golf club in his hand. While most Colombians tend to trend toward soccer, the Echavarria clan all migrated to golf.
Emilio Echavarria wouldn’t have it any other way with his three boys – Andres, Miguel and Nicolas.
“Golf was always the most important thing,” said 16-year-old Nicolas, who is making quite a splash at the U.S. Junior Amateur this week at Gold Mountain Golf Club.
“We’ve played since we were two years old,” Nicolas continued. “We were born with a club in our hand.”
All the Echavarria boys have found success on the golf course. Andres, the oldest at 23, was an All-American at the University of Florida where in his senior season in 2010-11 he claimed the Gator Invitational and the Southeastern Conference Championship, both in playoffs. Miguel, 20, is studying engineering, and plays on the men’s golf team at the University of Michigan, where he’ll be a junior this fall.
And prior to his arrival at Gold Mountain, Nicolas tied for third in the 15-17 age division at the Callaway Junior Worlds held at Torrey Pines in San Diego.
Nicolas, who won the South American Championship two years ago and was runner-up in the Colombian Junior this year, just carried that momentum to his first U.S. Junior appearance. His 2-and-1 victory over 17-year-old Ryan Benton of Dothan, Ala., on Friday morning propelled him into an afternoon semifinal encounter against fellow 16-year-old Chelso Barrett of Keene, N.H.
With Andres serving as his caddie and his parents viewing from the sidelines, Nicolas has conjured up images of another Colombian player who nearly won this championship 12 years ago. Camilo Villegas is now a golf icon in South America, and especially Colombia where he helped spur the game’s growth. In 1999, Villegas advanced to the U.S. Junior final at the Country Club of York (Pa.) before losing to Hunter Mahan. He later was an All-American at the University of Florida and now owns three PGA Tour victories.
“As in everything, we’re a country that’s focused more on soccer,” said Andres Echavarria. “I think golf is starting to grow. Camilo has helped the growth of Colombian golf immensely. I think this [run by Nicolas] is going to help and make people realize, if you can do it in the juniors, you can take it to the amateur level and professional level. It’s going to be very good for Nicolas’ confidence.”
Much like the family matches back home at Llano Grade Country Club in Medellin is for the Echavarria boys. Father Emilio joins them in foursome (alternate shot) matches on a regular basis – usually it’s Emilio (a 5 handicap) and Andres against Miguel and Nicoloas – and the competition, according to Nicolas and Andres, is fierce.
Andres certainly has seen the evolution of his youngest brother’s game over the past two years.
“He’s taller and stronger,” said Andres, who turned pro after completing his eligibility at Florida in June. “His putter is good, but I admire his long irons. If I could hit long irons like him, I would have won a few more in college tournaments.”
Andres is no slouch on the golf course, either. As an amateur, he tied for 19th at the Nationwide Tour’s Bogota Open in March, which earned him an exemption into the Chitimacha Louisiana Open a week later. He shot a final-round 67 and finished a stroke behind winner Brett Wetterich. Unfortunately, the college season prevented him from playing the next event in California. In June, he was the odd man out of a 3-for-2 playoff for the final qualifying spot from the Vero Beach, Fla., U.S. Open sectional qualifier.
Next week he’ll go back to Colombia with Nicolas to play in the Colombian Open.
Of course, he’d love to help his brother take the U.S. Junior Amateur trophy back to South America. The two have made a formidable team this week on the 7,111-yard Olympic Course.
“He’s a really good guy with the yards and breaks [on the greens],” said Nicolas. “Mentally, he’s a really tough guy.”
But when it comes to going to college, Nicolas likely won’t follow either brother. Because Nicolas hasn’t played a lot of competitions in the U.S., many programs have not had the chance to evaluate his talent. Of course, this week’s performance will likely produce a few more phone calls and text messages.
Andres said Auburn has expressed some interest, but feels more schools will be on his trail after he reached the final four of the Junior Amateur. Nicolas said he definitely wants to play collegiately in the U.S.
“When you go to college, your game improves,” said Nicolas. “It’s a better experience for when you turn pro. I am planning to come here.”
What he’d also like to do is match Maria Jose Uribe, the 2007 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, and become the second Colombian – and first male – to win a USGA title. Villegas came up one match short in 1999, as did Marisa Baena in the 1996 Women’s Amateur final to Kellie Kuehne.
“Marisa won her first tournament on the LPGA at match play,” said Nicolas. “Colombians like match play.”
No matter what happens, Nicolas has already surpassed any of his brother’s results in a USGA event. Andres qualified for the Junior Amateur in 2005 and lost in the first round to Jamie Lovemark at Longmeadow (Mass.) Country Club. A year later, he lost in the first round of the U.S. Amateur to Bronson La’Cassie at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. He missed the cut at the 2007 U.S. Amateur and last year at Chambers Bay in nearby University Place, Wash., he was the No. 4 overall qualifier only to lose another first-round match to Carter Newman from NCAA Division I champion Augusta State.
“He’s already a lot better than me,” said Andres. “I never made it past the first round in a USGA event.”
If anything, he’s made a Colombian golfing family proud.
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. E-mail him at email@example.com.