PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Abraham Ancer. One of these is not like the others. Then again, Ancer, who is alone in fifth at the Players Championship, just four strokes off the lead of Rahm after a gritty two-under 70 on Saturday, is used to that.
The town the 28-year-old grew up in, Reynosa, Mexico, has been in the news of late. One of Mexico’s most dangerous border cities, 22 suspected migrants disappeared from a charter bus headed towards there earlier this week. Located on the southern bank of the Rio Grande and 15 miles south of McAllen, Texas, it’s a major hotspot in the war between the Gulf and Los Zetas drug cartels.
It’s also where Ancer was introduced to golf by his father, also named Abraham, who didn’t take up the game himself until he was 29.
“I’m sort of a mistake,” said Ancer, who was born in McAllen, Texas, but raised in Reynosa and is 10 years younger than his youngest of two sisters. “He always wanted a boy.”
When that dream was realized, he took his son to the golf course while he was still in diapers. By the time Ancer was 3, he had a club in his hand. At 10, he beat his dad for the first time, shooting 37 over nine holes at Club Campestre de Reynosa.
Then, when Ancer was a teenager, the family moved back to McAllen, where he went on to star for his high school golf team before landing at Odessa Junior College. In his one year there, he won five times, was a first-team All-American and in 2010 was named the Jack Nicklaus Award winner as the national junior college player of the year. He met Nicklaus that year at the Memorial Tournament and called it “like being at Disneyland.”
Ancer transferred to Oklahoma to finish school, and by the time he graduated three years in later 2013 ranked second all-time for the Sooners in scoring behind only Anthony Kim.
Professional golf proved more challenging.
Even though Ancer made it through all three stages of Q school in the fall of 2014 to secure a Web.com Tour card, won his first year on the circuit and went on to secure a PGA Tour card, the transition to golf’s toughest tour didn’t go smoothly. At least at first.
“My first year here on tour was a rough one,” said Ancer, who missed 13 cuts in 19 starts in the 2015-’16 season before being relegated back to the Web.com Tour. “I just tried to change a lot of things. I didn’t really stick to what got me to the PGA Tour in the first place. I wanted to hit it farther, I wanted to hit it higher, and it just didn’t really pan out very well. I changed equipment all the time, which was terrible.”
Ancer’s game revolves around what you’d expect for someone 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds. He finds fairways and hits greens. Eventually, he gave up the chase for more distance, focused on his strengths and two years ago racked up seven top-10s on the Web.com Tour, including three runner-up finishes, on his way back to the PGA Tour.
It helped, too, that in December, he won the Australian Open easily, beating a field that included Keegan Bradley, Matt Kuchar and Cameron Smith to cap a year that included six other top-10s. A year ago, Ancer was outside the top 250 in the world. He came into this week ranked 63rd.
“It was good that it happened, and I learned what to do,” he said. “I’ve been really good at just trusting my game and just playing what got me here in the first place.”
That’s been evident through the first three rounds of his first Players Championship. His résumé might not stack up to the names above him on the leader board, but his game has.
Through 54 holes, Ancer ranks ninth in strokes gained/off the tee and is fourth in proximity to the hole, which comes in handy when you’re one of the worst putters on tour. A tinkerer and collector of flat sticks—Ancer owns more than 40—he put a new Odyssey one in the bag this week. It has worked well enough. Ancer leads the field in birdies with 19.
“I’m playing some really solid golf, plotting along this golf course really well,” he said. “I just got to keep doing the same thing.”
Should he be able to and go on to win the Players, Ancer would be the first Latin player to do so.