Moreno makes the most of Colombian golf scene
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
It’s about 4 p.m on a Friday in Bucaramanga, Colombia and Maria Camila Moreno has just finished school for the week. She wears a pink t-shirt with teenage American actress and singer-songwriter Victoria Justice printed on it. She looks like any 10-year-old girl in the world, but Moreno is a golf prodigy in a nation where the odds are against her in this game.
In late August, the 4-foot-3-inch Moreno, who weighs in at 68 pounds, shattered the competition in the 10- and 11-year-old division of Colombia’s National Junior Golf Championship. She carded a 2-under 282 (67-69-73-73) at Ruitoque Country Club, a Jack Nicklaus course in Bucaramanga. The second-place finisher posted a 14-over 298, giving Moreno a 16-shot victory.
“I felt very good,” she told Golfweek through a translator in a Skype interview. “I putted great. The putter really was the best thing.”
Moreno’s introduction to golf came in an unorthodox manner. Her parents, David, a mechanical engineer, and Sonia, an industrial engineer, did not have much experience with golf before she began playing. Moreno found the game on her own, at age 6, while swimming at Club Campestre de Bucaramanga, the private club to which the Moreno family belongs. She saw the club’s driving range and decided to give golf a try.
“When she was swimming, she was a good swimmer,” David said through a translator about his only child. “When she played soccer, she played soccer well. And when she’d play golf, she was natural. She’s a natural athlete.”
Moreno’s golf career blossomed quickly. After only four months of practicing, she qualified for the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in Pinehurst, N.C. Many people who watched her described her swing as one of the most natural swings they had ever seen.
“People say that about everyone’s kids,” David joked.
With little knowledge about the game’s fundamentals, he decided to let a group of PGA and LPGA professionals judge her swing at the Don Law Golf Academy at Club Med in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Moreno, 6 years old at the time, participated in a week-long July program with some of the top juniors in the world, ages 6 to 16. She won a tournament at the end of the week and earned the nickname “Little Lorena Ochoa.”
In the past five years, Moreno has qualified for five U.S. Kids Golf World Championship, finishing in the top 12 in her flight the past three years. Her commanding victory in this year’s Colombia National Junior Golf Championship was redemption for her runner-up finish in the 9-year-old division one year ago.
Tony Ciabattoni, a former coordinator of corporate golf outings in Pittsburgh, has had the ability to see Moreno’s growth first-hand. He owns Tierra del Sol, a public golf course in Bucaramanga and met David while doing publicity for his course at a tournament at Ruitoque. Ciabattoni, who served as the translator in this interview, invited the Morenos to come practice at his course, and a friendship was formed.
Ciabattoni is most impressed by Moreno’s ability to strike a balance between childhood and a knack for golf that’s far beyond her years. Moreno’s typical weekday consists of ending school at 3:15 p.m., arriving at the driving range by 4 p.m. and hitting golf balls for three hours.
“Keep in mind it gets dark here at 6:00,” Ciabattoni said. After golf practice, Moreno rushes home for a quick dinner (lunch is the more prevalent meal in Colombia) and as much studying as possible before her 9 p.m. bedtime. Then she does it all again.
As driven as Moreno is (she gets mad at her father if she misses a day of practice), she still finds time to relax. Ciabattoni recalls a day at his range when Moreno was 9 years old. “They came with a kite and she was flying it for the first half hour before she started practicing,” he says. “It was fun to watch her jumping around like a 9-year-old. She’s just full of life. She’s not so serious about golf she doesn’t take the time to fly a kite and have fun.”
Moreno has been able to develop her skills in a country where golf is not among the most popular sports. The Morenos are part of a very small percentage of Colombians with access to a game that takes a backseat to games like soccer.
Ciabattoni is a chief witness to this. He established his public course in 2008 with the hope of spreading his love of golf in Colombia. The road has not been easy financially or socially.
“I’m certainly happy for Maria Camila and any of the other kids who have the opportunity to grow within the game since it is very limited here,” he said.
As for the future, Moreno, who attends a bilingual private school, plans to continue her consistent practice regimen to become the best golfer she can be. David hints that a move to the U.S. may be on Maria Camila’s radar in the next few years, as she tries to find the best competition available. Next year, Maria Camila plans to play the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego.
In the meantime, Moreno will continue to practice in Bucaramanga. She currently takes lessons at Ruitoque from Pedro Russi, a professional who previously tutored Colombian LPGA Tour player Mariajo Uribe. In 2007, Uribe became the first Latin American player in history to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Through Ciabattoni, David explained he is proud of his daughter and happy to know there is validation to what she is doing. He takes pride in hearing others speak highly of his daughter, and he is amazed by her talent.
David also knows there are no guarantees. For right now though, he is happy his daughter is enjoying herself.
By the end of the interview, Moreno is starting to get antsy. Since it is Friday, Moreno can start practice late, but she has already lost much of her daylight practice time. She says “gracias” and “adios” to the camera before parting ways.
No hard feelings on either side of the webcam. If she keeps that regiment going, this won’t be the last time the world gets a look at her.