LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic -- Abel Gallegos couldn't hide his smile. As the defending champion of the Latin American Amateur Championship held his opening news conference Wednesday, Gallegos knew everyone wanted to talk about what had changed since he won the 2020 tournament in Mayakoba that granted him a spot in both the Masters and The Open. Some things were more evident than others.
"I think I made a very positive change, I lost about 15 kilograms [33 pounds]," he said. "So here we are, a new Abel at a new LAAC."
Just over 24 hours after he spoke to the media, Gallegos breathed a sigh of relief as his par putt on the final hole of his first round dropped in, giving him an opening-round 70, good enough to be tied for 11th. He is one of only 18 players finished the first round under par.
In the past two years, Gallegos has undergone a transformation that's not exclusive to his physical makeup. The 19-year-old is two weeks from turning 20. He's moved from his small town of Veinticinco de Mayo in Buenos Aires to Florida in order to train, learn English and direct all his efforts toward becoming a professional golfer. First, though, his goal is to try to repeat at LAAC, something no player has ever done.
"It was a complicated decision. I'm from a small town; family and friends are always close and around," Gallegos said of leaving for Florida. "But I felt that if I wanted to dedicate myself to this, I needed to be in the States."
There was an immediate culture shock. At first, Gallegos felt somewhat lonely -- and homesick.
"It was a hard decision for us parents, but he was motivated," his father, Abel Gallegos Sr., said. "We knew he had to 'cross the pond,' as we say in Buenos Aires, to keep getting better."
Motivation allowed Gallegos to power through the difficulty of not just being in a different place but also of adopting a new, rigorous routine. It was his coach, Hernan Rey -- coach for the Argentina Golf Association and for several PGA pros -- who told Abel Sr. that professional players couldn't be 10 kilograms (22 pounds) above weight if they wanted to succeed. Once Gallegos got to Florida, the process of taking his game to the next level began.
"At 9 a.m. he's working out," Rey said. "We stop at noon for lunch, and then he practices from 2-6 p.m. and then he goes to the gym. It's a very personalized routine, so we're constantly tweaking it."
Gallegos took a bit of time to get used to his new daily beat, but now, if he doesn't train, he feels like something is missing. And then there was the food.
"We always used to say, he liked Coca-Cola a lot," Abel Sr. said with a big laugh.
The soda was out. So were Abel Jr.'s beloved Argentinian asados, or barbecues. His diet was simplified.
"Chicken, chicken, chicken," the younger Gallegos joked.
Rey says the physical improvement has immediately translated to his golf game. While Gallegos has always had a very powerful swing, he has greater stamina now as well.
"The personal side, too, I saw from the outside that he matured a lot," Rey said. "That has helped him grow a lot personally. He's a different person now."
His dad notices it, too. From the back of the room at Wednesday's news conference, he recorded videos of his son answering questions at the podium with glee, panning over to the whole scene in the media room like a proud parent who couldn't believe his son was the focus of all of this attention.
"I remember when he was younger and he would do local interviews, he would tell me to come with him because he'd say, 'I get a mental block,' Abel Sr. said. "Now he's answering whatever question that gets asked of him well. You see him like this, and you realize he's not a kid anymore."
Life has happened fast since Gallegos last won the LAAC. He's played with Jason Day, has been awed by watching Rory McIlroy's ballstriking in person and ran into Tiger Woods at the Masters. All have been reminders of why he's moved from his small town of 22,000 people to the United States, and why the dream he's chasing has been worth the work he's investing.
"He misses the asados, but we're all happy about it," Abel Sr. said. "And I got all his old clothes."