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Amateur event launched to grow game in Latin America

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

(Reuters) - In a bid to grow amateur golf in South and Central America, the sport's governing bodies and organizers of the Masters tournament have created a new event, the Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC), to be launched next year.

The inaugural edition will be played from January 15-18 at Pilar Golf Club on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in Argentina where the winner will earn an automatic invitation to take part in the Masters three months later.

Both the tournament winner and the runner-up will also be exempt into the final stages of qualifying for the 2015 British Open and U.S. Open, organizers said on Wednesday at the official launch of the LAAC in downtown Buenos Aires.

The organizing bodies hope the event will help stimulate the game's development in the region and unearth top players in much the same way that the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship has been able to do so effectively since its inception in 2009.

Japan's Hideki Matsuyama, Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship winner in 2010 and 2011, and Chinese teenager Tianlang Guan, who won the title aged just 14 in 2012, have already emerged as genuine talents at golf's highest level.

"Supporting the game's continuous growth has been a responsibility taken very seriously throughout the 260-year history of the R&A," Royal and Ancient (R&A) chief executive Peter Dawson said in a statement.

"Having been involved in this region of the world for many years, we understand the potential impact a championship of this stature can have on golfers with dreams of competing at the highest level.

"We are once again delighted to embark on such a worthwhile opportunity with both the Masters and the USGA (United States Golf Association)."

Since winning the Asian Amateur title in 2010 and 2011 to qualify for the Masters the following years and make the cut at Augusta on both occasions, Matsuyama has established himself as one of the leading players in the professional game.

He became the first rookie to lead the Japan Tour's money list after winning his fifth tournament on the circuit at the Casio World Open in December, and recorded top-10s at both the U.S. Open and British Open earlier in 2013.

CELEBRATED COMPATRIOT

Now aged 21, Matsuyama has climbed to 24th in the world rankings and many pundits expect him to enjoy a more successful career than his celebrated compatriot Ryo Ishikawa.

Guan last year became the youngest competitor ever at the Masters and commanded much of the spotlight that week with his poise, demeanor and superb short game as he became, at 14, the youngest player to make the cut at a major championship.

Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters tournament, said he believed the LAAC would motivate current and future generations of golfers and "create heroes" who would inspire others to take up the game.

"This belief has guided us well through the early successes of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship," Payne added.

"With the collective expertise in guiding the game of golf provided by the R&A and the USGA, we are hopeful in achieving equally exciting results."

Golf, which last featured at an Olympics in 1904, will be returning at the Rio de Janeiro Games in two years' time but Dawson said this was simply "a coincidence" and not part of the "planned intent" when the LAAC was created.

"This is a wonderful happenstance that we are starting this new championship at a time when golf is returning to the Olympics, and returning to the Olympics in Brazil," Dawson said on a conference call.

"It's going to be a double boost for golf in this region of the world to have the Olympics on the one hand and then this championship continuing thereafter. But I don't think I could say that the two are directly connected."

The inaugural LAAC will feature a 120-player field comprising the top male amateurs - based on the world amateur rankings - in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

It will be played in a strokeplay format over 72 holes, with the leading 60 players and ties qualifying for the last two rounds.

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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