El Salvador's Figueroa shooting for weekend at Torrey Pines

El Salvador is a country in Central America with a population of nearly 7 million. This week, Salvadorans will be proudly represented by one man at Torrey Pines, host of the 108th U.S. Open.

Fernando Figueroa, who learned how to play golf at age 6 on what was then the only 27 holes that could be found in his native country, has become the first Central American golfer ever to qualify for a major championship.

His presence at a major is a breakthrough, considering El Salvador's tradition in golf -- or lack of it.

"There's no tradition at all. They built a new club four years ago, and now there are 45 holes in El Salvador," Figueroa said with a curious smile.

Tutored by his father, who consistently took him and his brothers to the club, Figueroa started to get familiar with the sport that is now his profession.

"My brothers didn't like it, but for me, it was just another way of sharing good moments with my father," the 24-year-old explained.

Not everyone has the chance to play golf in El Salvador and Figueroa took advantage of the opportunity to the fullest. He remains completely aware of the widespread poverty that exists in Latin America, and he learned soon enough that golf, in Latin American countries, is for the rich.

"Unfortunately, golf is an elite sport," he said. "Only Colombia and Argentina have done a great job in promoting and expanding the sport. I hope I can do something in order to correct this situation."

The Figueroa family spent most of its summers in the United States and occasionally some time during the school year. But that time wasn't only to enjoy its vacations … the Figueroas' main goal was to promote their son's budding golf career.

Figueroa has been working with instructor Kevin Connelly since he was 12, and his singular ambition has remained unchanged.

"Play golf in the United States," Figueroa said.

To a certain point, Figueroa still wasn't fully aware of his talent and didn't imagine a future in professional golf.

When he was 17, he moved to Bradenton, Fla., where he joined the David Leadbetter Academy, a school run by IMG that specializes in golf. Once there, Figueroa crossed paths with future stars such as Maria Sharapova, who became a prodigy under the tutelage of legendary coach Nick Bollettieri at another IMG-run school. Figueroa also met LPGA star Paula Creamer and many other talented young athletes who are still unknown to the sporting public.

"You share things with people all around the world, you learn a lot. And it was there where I realized that I could compete with the best golfers in the world," Figueroa said.

Letters from colleges started arriving. Soon enough, golf became a means to an end: a new job.

"My performance was not the best. I had a lot of expectations, but my game simply let me down," he admitted. "But thanks to the work we put in with Kevin, I began to develop a deeper understanding of the game and those tough moments only made me stronger."

Before turning pro, the University of North Carolina showed up in Figueroa's path.
He received a scholarship to play for the Tar Heels, and during the fall of 2005, he competed in the Adams Cup of Newport and the VCU/Mattaponi Springs Shootout as a starter and tied for 40th and 53rd, respectively.

North Carolina was also where he met psychologist Richard Coop, who has worked with many players on the tour.

"He taught me to trust my game while not imitating others. Originality was key," Figueroa said.

So you haven't patterned your swing after anyone else?

"No other player," he said. "The only man I admire is my father. I am the one who hits the golf ball, but none of this would have been possible without his help. I will be forever grateful."

Figueroa isn't the only Tar Heels alum who has qualified for the U.S. Open this year. Kevin Silva, Fernando's roommate during his freshman year, and Davis Love III will also be at Torrey Pines this week.

Figueroa's experience focused mainly in mini-tours in the United States and in the Tour de las Americas (TLA). Initially, he wasn't posting the best results. But he always kept his patience. Today, he is enjoying the peak of his career so far.

Not only is he ranked sixth in the TLA's money list, but after posting two rounds of 67 at U.S. Open sectional qualifying, he will be present at the "toughest major of all."

"The first thing that came to mind was my parents, who will now have the possibility of watching me play a major," Figueroa said without hesitation. "I know that I have made history and I hope I can represent Central America in the best possible way."

He already played Torrey Pines in a Junior World tournament. Nonetheless, Figueroa readily admits that the course has changed dramatically.

"It's incredible what they are able to do. The course is playing much longer and what most caught my attention was that there used to be a river in the 11th hole and it's not there anymore," he said. "It helps to hit long, but you definitely have to avoid the rough."

Figueroa will play alongside amateur Michael Quagliano and Joey Lamielle in the first two rounds, and although he would have loved to play with one of the marquee players, he is ready to soak up the journey.

"I am going to enjoy the moment, the clubhouse, my colleagues, everything. But golf is still my job and we want to perform as good as possible," Figueroa said.

Figueroa remains poised despite the fact that he is facing one of the toughest challenges in his career.

"I would love to make the cut," he said. "I am not going to stop here. This is my commitment: to become the first Central American player to ever make the cut."