Etulain making PGA Tour debut in Puerto Rico

Julian Etulain during the Bogota Open.

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico – Julian Etulain, the leading money winner on the Tour de las Americas in 2010, likes to gamble. His propensity for risk has turned him into one of Latin America’s promising young players. The 22-year-old’s talent was on display Saturday at the Puerto Rico Open.

After his playing partner, D.J. Brigman, hit iron on the 318-yard, par-4 17th, Etulain pulled out his driver, undeterred by the water just right of the green.

Etulain, a broad-shouldered, 5-foot-6 Argentine, hit his tee shot into a greenside bunker, but missed his 5-foot birdie putt. The young Argentine’s bet turned out to be a push, mirroring his performance this week at the casino at the host Gran Melia resort, he said. His belt buckle, which depicted a hand of cards, provided further proof of his propensity to take on risk.

When asked through a translator if he enjoys playing aggressively, he emphatically replied, “Si.”

The Puerto Rico Open isn’t just a place for Q-School grads and past PGA Tour winners to try to improve their status. It’s also an opportunity for Latin America’s best to play on the world’s top tour.

Etulain, playing his first PGA Tour event, is tied for 55th at 1-under 215 through three rounds.

“I’m very excited to not only make the cut, but play pretty well in my first PGA Tour event,” Etulain said through a translator.

Etulain won twice on the Tour de las Americas last year, and lost a playoff at another event. He was named the tour’s player of the year, one year after winning top rookie honors. He turned pro shortly after representing Argentina at the 2008 World Amateur Team Championship.

He finished third at last week’s Bogota Open on the Nationwide Tour, which guarantees a start at the tour’s Louisiana Open in two weeks.

Etulain’s practice swings are wristy and compact, nothing like his actual action. He rears back on his right side, then swings with full force. At the finish, he stands up straight on his toes with both legs fully straightened and the club wrapped around his neck. Etulain’s Popeye headcover is appropriate, considering how he tries to muscle his tee shots. There are limits to how much power he can generate with that compact frame, though. He ranks 56th in driving distance this week at 286.7 yards per measured tee shot.

He grew up in Argentina, but moved to Miami about 18 months ago to begin working with Mariano Bartolome at Jim McLean’s academy. Etulain practices at Doral, site of this week’s World Golf Championship.

“My short game has really come around,” Etulain said. “That’s where my improvement has come from.”

Etulain, nicknamed “El Tula” by his fellow players, began playing at the Aero Golf Club in Coronel Suarez, Argentina, about nine hours southeast of Buenos Aires. It’s a modest nine-hole course, “but they’re building three more this year,” he added.

His father, Daniel, introduced him to the game. Daniel, a 5 handicap, owns a car dealership.

After making the cut on the number in Puerto Rico, Etulain teed off at 6:54 a.m. in Saturday’s first group. He and Brigman toured Trump International in about 3 hours, 45 minutes, finishing more than a hole ahead of the day’s second group.

They played on a virtually empty course. The iguana that raced across the 13th fairway was just the third member of their gallery. The street that bisects Trump International was beginning to fill with cars, many of whom were coming to watch Etulain’s countryman, Angel Cabrera. Cabrera, a fan favorite at the Puerto Rico Open is in fourth place through three rounds.

Etulain, at least for this week, is following in Cabrera’s footsteps.

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