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Web.com rookie leads money list as Rex Open golf begins

RALEIGH If anyone can understand what Carlos Ortiz is up to, it’s Ben Kohles.

Two years ago, Kohles was an immediate hit on the Web.com Tour. Soon after his collegiate career ended at Virginia, the former Green Hope High product promptly won his first two professional tournaments on the developmental tour.

But what Ortiz has done this year as a Web.com Tour rookie may be even more impressive. He won two of his first six events and was in position to win two others. With $363,058 in earnings, the 23-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, leads the tour money list by almost $100,000 as the Rex Hospital Open begins Thursday.

“The kids these days are coming out and not scared,” Kohles said Wednesday at TPC Wakefield Plantation. “They’re not scared to win, not scared to go out and play well. You see it year after year.”

Kohles mentioned Jordan Spieth, who has become a PGA Tour sensation at 20. But many predicted stardom for Spieth. Few knew of Ortiz.

A year ago, Ortiz had just finished competing in an NCAA Regional for the University of North Texas. He tied for 49th place, 17 shots behind medalist Sam Smith of Southern California.

But then Ortiz went to the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament, tying for 15th. That earned him fully exempt status on the tour for the first eight events, and just like that he began posting low scores – his 68.61 stroke average also is best on tour.

“I played well in Q-School and after that the season started and I was ready to go,” he said. “It’s been great.”

Well, yes. Ortiz won the Panama Claro Championship in late March with a 66-64 finish. A few weeks later, he won again at the El Bosque Mexico Championship.

While your first pro victory always is special, Ortiz said the second was sweet.

“It was great, a great experience,” Ortiz said. “To win the first in Panama was pretty fun, but to win in front of my friends and family was a great feeling.

“You have some pressure to perform when you have your home fans and family there. But I pulled if off.”

Judging from Ortiz’s statistics this year, there are few weaknesses in his game. A lanky type at 6 feet and 150 pounds, he’s fifth in driving distance – at 293.5 yards – and 21st in driving accuracy. He’s 50th in greens in regulation, but fifth in putting.

“My putting has been good the past month or so and been the difference,” he said. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Should Ortiz win the Rex or another Web.com Tour event this year he will earn a “battlefield promotion” to the PGA Tour. Kohles, after his back-to-back wins in 2012, was fifth in one other tournament but made enough money in 10 events to join the PGA Tour in 2013.

Michael Sim, in 2009, was the last Web.com player to make the hop to the big tour with three wins in a year.

Kohles, whose family moved to Cary when he was 10, didn’t play golf until he was 15 and learned the game at Prestonwood Country Club. A three-time All-America at Virginia, he was twice named ACC player of the year and won seven college tournaments.

Ortiz, conversely, began playing at 5 and later was the top-ranked junior player in the Mexican Golf Federation and competed for Mexico in the World Amateur Team Championship. His North Texas college career was solid but hardly spectacular – he was a three-time All-Sun Belt Conference selection and conference champion in 2011.

But look at him now. Ortiz has had a dreamy start and will be on the PGA Tour, but with something to keep in mind:

Kohles made it to the PGA Tour in his second year of pro golf, calling it a dream come true. He’s back on the Web.com Tour this year.

“You win the first two, you think it’s easy,” Kohles said. “I thought I was ready. But with this game, there’s so much up and down. It’s about the grind.”

That’s fine with Ortiz, who casually sat back in a golf cart Wednesday and said, “I’m still learning and I’m happy right now.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip
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