At age 9, Jorge Garcia was robbed of the chance to play his favorite sport when the golf course in his small hometown of Anaco, Venezuela, closed down.
Garcia said many of his country’s other courses closed as well, for political reasons.
“I was heartbroken,” Garcia said.
Finally, after three years of doing nothing more with golf in Venezuela than hitting balls at a driving range, Garcia decided to move to South Florida without his parents. He lives with his aunt.
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The gut-wrenching decision to leave behind everything he knew has paid off.
Garcia, a 17-year-old junior at American Heritage, is the nation’s fourth-ranked junior according to GolfWeek and No.2 according to the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA).
He won his first individual state title last year and led American Heritage to its first team championship as well.
“He’s very disciplined,” said Patricia Gonzalez, his personal coach and a former player at Texas A&M and on the European pro tour. “He’s determined to be the best.”
Garcia comes from a well-to-do family — his mother is a lawyer, and his father is an engineer. Garcia got his love for golf from his dad, who would play on weekends.
When Garcia showed an aptitude for the sport, he started traveling to the United States . for tournaments. He would also take lessons at the Jim McLean Golf School in Miami, which is where he met Gonzalez, a native of Colombia.
The two have a strong bond — she has been working with Garcia since he was 7 and is proud of the work she has done.
Garcia made another strong connection in South Florida when he met Kristian Caparros, a talented peer.
The two would see each other at junior tournaments and struck up a friendship. Garcia often stays at Caparros’ house, taking the top bunk while his buddy sleeps below.
When it came time to be recruited, the two told colleges they planned to go to the same school as a “package deal” before ultimately selecting the University of Florida.
“I think by 2016,” Caparros said, “we can contend for a national title at Florida.”
In the meantime, American Heritage, coached by Brandt Moser, is a strong contender to repeat as Class 1A state champs Oct. 29-30 in Tavares.
Heritage has three all-county golfers back from last season — juniors Garcia, Caparros and Matthew Mourin.
As for the individual crown, Garcia will be tough to beat, a fact that is not lost on Caparros.
“Winning state is always a goal of mine,” Caparros said. “But knowing [Garcia], I will probably have to shoot 12-under-par to take the title. It will be a birdie battle.”
Garcia has shown golfing talent for about a decade. But in the past year, he has had a breakthrough, winning six AJGA events and taking his game to another level.
Among his biggest wins in the past year were the Junior World Cup in Japan, the Venezuelan Amateur and the Puerto Rico Junior Open. He shot a career-best 63 in one of his rounds in Puerto Rico, and the win there qualified him for his first PGA event, the Puerto Rico Open, where he made the cut and finished in the top 70.
“It’s a goal of mine to be the No. 1 junior golfer in the United States,” Garcia said. “That’s what I’m working for, and it would mean a lot.”
At 5-7 and 145 pounds, Garcia is not imposing physically, and he doesn’t lift weights. But he is above average off the tee, hitting his drives about 275 to 280 yards.
Still, what separates him from other young golfers is his short game.
“I’ve always putted really well since I was little,” said Garcia, who has a 3.2 grade-point average. “But in the past year, my ball-striking has been consistent and my putting and chipping have stayed the same.”
That explains how Garcia has been able to move up about 100 spots in the rankings during the past year.
Gonzalez said Garcia takes direction well, gets over bad shots quickly and works extremely hard, practicing all aspects of his game on a daily basis.
“He wasn’t intimidated when he played against the pros in Puerto Rico,” Gonzalez said. “That was a good sign.”