How Arkansas’ golf programs built a pipeline to Mexico and Latin America


Last April, María Fassi introduced herself to the world on multiple occasions. First, the 21-year-old golfer from Pachuca, Mexico, mounted an epic challenge in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, finishing 4 strokes behind winner Jennifer Kupcho of Wake Forest in a televised final round. A day later, Fassi and Kupcho were whisked off to New York on a media tour that included stops on NBC’s “Today” program and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

After fielding questions about her prowess on the golf course, Fassi playfully bemoaned going back to reality as a college student. “I have three classes tomorrow,” she told Fallon. “So I’m super excited about that.”

At the time, Fassi was in the midst of her senior year at Arkansas, where she would win the NCAA women’s individual championship the next month to put an exclamation point on a decorated amateur career. With Fassi now on the LPGA Tour, her impact and influence continue to be felt on the Arkansas campus.

“We’ve had tremendous success recruiting talented individuals from Mexico and Latin America,” said Shauna Taylor, head coach for women’s golf at Arkansas since 2007. “You see the success María had on our campus, and now the younger girls want to be just like her.”

The WGC-Mexico Championship that begins Thursday puts the golf spotlight squarely south of the border, but the University of Arkansas doesn’t need an introduction. The connection between the school, located in the town of Fayetteville (pop. 85,257) in the northwestern part of the state, and some of the top amateur golfing prospects from Mexico has existed for nearly a decade. In 2012, Taylor added two Mexican golfers to her squad. Regina Plasencia joined as a freshman along with Gaby López, who would become a two-time All-American selection. López’s success at Arkansas and subsequently on the LPGA Tour helped turn other young Mexican golfers on to Taylor’s program.

By the time López left the Razorbacks program in 2015, Fassi and Álvaro Ortiz had already committed.

There are currently three golfers from Mexico across the Razorbacks’ women’s and men’s teams. A fourth, Cory López, has committed to the women’s team for the upcoming school year.

“For us, it started with Gaby López,” Taylor said. “She wanted to follow in Lorena Ochoa’s footsteps, obviously, one of her mentors and idols growing up.”

Gaby López, who ranks 41st in the world and has two LPGA Tour career wins in tow, started golfing at age 4. She hoped to emulate Ochoa, who won consecutive NCAA Player of the Year awards in 2001 and 2002 while at Arizona before embarking on her Hall of Fame pro career.

“When I was 13, I had the opportunity to train with her while she was ranked No. 1 in the world,” López told ESPN in 2017. “That moment marked my life. Just being able to get five minutes with her were enough for me to help me fulfill my dream.”

At Arkansas, López won All-American honors twice and finished runner-up at the 2015 NCAA championship, spawning comparisons to her idol Ochoa and creating a pathway for the university to recruit more golfers from Mexico.

“I don’t think we were on [Gaby’s] radar,” Taylor said. “Fortunately, she fell in love with Fayetteville on her visits. Her great experience helped us sell this place.”

Fassi was drawing interest from NCAA schools at 14 and competing in amateur events across Mexico and the United States. When it came time to tip the scales, it was López who made Fassi consider following in her footsteps at Arkansas.

“Gaby invited me to Fayetteville because I had a tournament nearby, and I was just fascinated,” Fassi said. “She kept nudging me, and I trusted her judgment, so I took the visit.”

Though Fassi took visits to other schools, she was most impressed by Arkansas and developed a strong relationship with Taylor. “I felt at home, and that’s not easy for me sometimes,” Fassi said. “They were nice and very caring. I ended up deciding very early on.”

Like López, Fassi’s dreams of golf stardom were directly influenced by Ochoa, who dominated the LPGA through most of their childhood. It is no coincidence, Fassi said, that little girls across Mexico want to be like the golfer who ruled the LPGA from 2003 to 2010.

Ochoa’s impact loomed so large that it pulled Fassi away from the sport that initially built up the family name. Fassi grew up in Pachuca, a small city an hour north of Mexico’s capital. Her father, Andrés, had moved to Mexico in the early ’90s from Argentina to pursue a career as a soccer administrator in what is now known as Liga MX, the country’s top league. As the vice president for Club Pachuca, Andrés has overseen a plethora of domestic and international titles for the club. María’s older brothers have also dedicated their lives to soccer: Sebastián is a goalkeeper for Liga MX’s León, and Juan Pablo is the sporting director for Argentine club Talleres, for which Andrés is the chairman.

“We’re very involved with soccer; my father, my brothers and I all love the sport. But I chose golf,” she said. “My parents were always very supportive of us. They were the first to encourage me after I told them I wanted to play golf. We’re very close-knit as a family. They were very supportive of me going to study in the United States.”

Fassi earned a lengthy list of honors while at Arkansas, including All-SEC honors two years in a row, SEC Female Athlete of the Year recognition in 2019, and in her senior year the Annika Award, presented to the top collegiate female golfer. Her legacy at Arkansas gave the coaching staff there the perfect recruiting tools.

“You see the success María Fassi had, and now the younger girls want to be just like her,” Taylor said.

Judging by the current roster, Fassi’s inspiration goes beyond Mexico. In recent years, the Razorbacks have gone deeper into Latin America in search of talent. On the women’s team, Argentina’s Ela Anacona, the top amateur in her country for three years running, and Colombia’s María Hoyos play together with Mexican sophomore Ximena González, who is a staple on her national team. On the men’s side, Peru’s Julián Perico competes alongside Luis Garza and Mauricio Figueroa, who both hail from Mexico. Perico and Garza made the SEC All-Freshman team in their debut seasons, a feat Figueroa wishes to emulate this year.

The success in creating a pipeline to Latin America — and the subsequent victories on the links — has spurred Taylor to double down, hoping to better connect with potential athletes in the future.

“I have a Spanish tutor come into my office and give me lessons,” Taylor said. “Whether you’re from Indiana or Mexico, you’re going to feel homesickness if you’re away from your family for the first time. I’m going to make every effort to make them feel more at home.”

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