Jacklin Jean, shown at the 2016 Latin America Amateur Championship ( Matías Gustavo Vinson )
By Jeff Babineau
Friday, January 15, 2016
LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic – At the second Latin American Amateur, several of the game’s future hopefuls have risen mightily as the championship reached its midway point on Friday.
At the top is Colombia's Nicolas Echavarria, who plays at Arkansas, and whose older brother, Andres, a former Florida Gators standout now playing the Web.com Tour, is on the bag this week. Echavarria shot 7-under 65 Friday to move to 7-under 137, and he leads by three shots over Argentine Alejandro Tosti, a current Florida player and last year’s runner-up. Tosti posted his own Friday 65, the low round of the tournament thus far at Pete Dye’s Teeth of the Dog and just one shot off the course record.
Somebody among this starting field will seize a golden ticket by winning on Sunday, landing a prize pack of exemptions highlighted by a starting spot in the 80th Masters in April. These are kids, many of whom are playing in U.S. colleges and being primed for the pro game, who are fueled by dreams of becoming great champions.
And then there is the other end of the scoreboard. Watching Haiti’s Jacklin Jean, his build not much thicker than a 1-iron, you’d never know he’d just finished in 107th place after rounds of 101-97, some 61 shots off the lead. Suffice to say, he missed the cut by miles, but that's OK. Jean has warm eyes and a large, easy smile, and his score tells little about the quality of man who shot it. If there were a trophy for the tournament’s most popular player, Jean easily, and proudly, would hoist it.
Make lots of new friends this week? Jean was asked as he sat finishing lunch overlooking the 18th fairway, the Caribbean Sea glistening in the background.
He smiled. “A lot. A lot.”
Jean spoke in French, his words translated by D.J. Neree, who played football at Brown and back home is the head of the fledgling Golf Federation of Haiti, one of 27 organizations, or nations, represented at the LAAC.
Adds Neree, 41, “He says that everybody showed that they liked him.”
Why would they not? Jean showed so much pure elation when his opening drive found the fairway to start his round early Friday that you’d have thought he’d won the green jacket at Augusta. He made one par – one fewer than he made the day before – but he did shoot a lower score than the day before, which was his goal heading out on the course.
“He promised that he was going to concentrate and play better,” Neree said, translating the words. “And he did that.”
Jean, 39, a father of five who’s been searching for work since losing his U.S. visa after overstaying it by a month in 2013, played golf for a spell as a youngster, but he left the game at 8 to take up tennis, which would become his sport. He played professionally, made it to the U.S. for some tournaments in places such as Miami and Michigan, said he won a few events and even taught the game back home on a court adjacent to a golf course.
The player notes disseminated to provide background at the LAAC state that Jean has shot 59 – and yes, he has. What it doesn’t tell you that it was at the Club de Petionville, a hardscrabble nine-holer on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince that’s the only golf course in Haiti. It opened mainly to entertain diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in 1938. (In 2010, several holes were taken over to create a massive tent city for upwards of 80,000 Haitians after a 7.0 earthquake devastated the country, leaving more than 100,000 people dead, and displacing some 300,000 others.)
Jean and Neree didn’t really know one another until recently, though they certainly had seen each other in passing. Sometimes while playing golf, Neree would watch Jean finish up a tennis lesson and walk down the hill, headed for home. The two would finally speak when Neree saw Jean and a few others on the golf course one day just months ago.
“I saw him hit,” Neree said energetically, “and saw how much fun they were having, and I approached him and I said, ‘Look, we’re going to have a tournament in order to send somebody to this championship (the LAAC).’
“We need players. Do you want to play in a tournament?”
Jean said he trained for about two months. He’d hit balls in a field, with some of his children – they range from 13 years to 3 months – shagging them for him. He beat five players in a qualifier using three clubs: an 8-iron, a pitching wedge and a putter. And this week, here he is, representing Haiti in the Latin America Amateur.
One year earlier, at the inaugural LAAC in Buenos Aires, Haiti was represented by 57-year-old Gerald Mathias, who thought the experience was so heavenly that he saw no need to repeat it. A USGA story on Mathias uncovered that not only had he never been on a plane before in his life, or ever seen a par-5 hole … Mathias had never before been on an elevator. Mathias shot 108-115. (Jean would clip that by 25 shots.)
Needless to say, after two practice rounds and two tournament rounds on one of the best golf courses in the world, Jean has been smitten by golf. He says he likes golf better than tennis, because in golf, “there are no crowds heckling you. There is no pressure.” He also loves the simple beauty of the game, the flight of a ball when a shot is struck just right, taking off so highly, and, he said, “the sensation that you get when you hit it on the green.”
The LAAC covers expenses for players and paid some $1,100 for Jean’s flight, which would have taken 12 hours with connections, but he was going to arrive to the tournament just before it started, so instead he paid $80 of his own to board a bus and take the 6-hour ride to La Romana. He showed up to practice rounds using a borrowed staff bag that covered up Neree’s name with a sheet of paper with Jean’s name written on it. At a classy event, it didn’t pass muster. So during the event, Jean, ever so liked, was given a snazzy new carry bag by the tournament that had his name stitched across the ball pocket.
Pretty cool. “So thankful,” Jean said.
Courtesy of D.J. Neree
Jacklin Jean with his new bag
Now Jean needs to get his own set of clubs. Neree said the federation, which lacks for funding because of its infancy but is taking all the right measures to get registered and established, owns but one set of clubs.
“We’re at the point now,” Neree said, “that it’s time to think about a financial plan. For instance, we have to finance clubs.”
As a country, Haiti doesn’t know very much about golf, but it does love its sports stars, and Neree said Haitians will back their athletes with great fervor. Before leaving home, Jean did his first television interview, and in the Dominican Republic, Neree’s phone has been pinging with texts and emails from folks back home.
“I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that Haiti now is playing golf,’” Neree said. “And so there’s a tremendous amount of interest. But as a start-up organization, and a sports federation, you need resources in order to engage the public if you’re going to start marketing. So we’re a little bit cautious about engaging the public. … Our marketing plan is to just do it gradually.”
Neree’s eyes grew big. “It’s 10 million people,” he said.
Jean’s golf is over, but he and Neree will stick around for the weekend at Teeth of the Dog, with Jean looking forward to watching some of the top players compete, hoping to soak in whatever he can. And then he’ll head home to Haiti and think about how he’ll go about qualifying for 2017, in Panama.
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