Figueroa proud to be one of the new faces in golf

Fernando Figueroa, from El Salvador, has surpassed barriers.

A new level of recognition is what Figueroa, 24, achieved when he became the first Central American golfer to qualify for a major: the 2008 U.S. Open.

"The truth is I was so focused during the tournament that it just flew by," said Figueroa, who didn't make the cut at Torrey Pines. "But when they announced my name and my country in the biggest tournament in the world at the first tee, it filled me with pride."

And he wasn't the only one, as Figueroa found out when he returned to El Salvador, which has a population of fewer than 7 million, for a two-week vacation in July.

"It was incredible," he recalled. "When I got there, a lot of people told me I was their inspiration. I felt really humbled and I just really didn't know what to say.

"I have received a lot of e-mails in which people have told me that I am the Central American pride. I still don't realize the magnitude of that statement."

Figueroa started to play golf at the age of 6 in the Campestre Cuscatlan Club. The green had only nine holes, but it represented one-third of the total holes in El Salvador at that time.

That's how poor El Salvador's golfing tradition has been. Figueroa is now trying to change that.

"There was no tradition at all, but they are developing more golf courses as we speak," Figueroa said.

The U.S. Open was not televised in El Salvador, but that didn't stop some fans from following Figueroa's performance at Torrey Pines.

"Golf is smaller than small in my country. Not even Tiger Woods, who more than a player is an icon, gets televised," he said. "That's why the fact that newspapers and local news gave constant updates of my performance is so important. Golf won that week, because for the first time ever in El Salvador, golf mattered."

Figueroa now knows he has to move forward with his career in order to make golf grow even more in Central America. He now knows the burden he carries as the new Hispanic face in golf.

"It is a responsibility I carry on my shoulders," he said.

And having the best year of his young professional career isn't enough.

After his first major, Figueroa played in four tournaments on the Tarheel and Hooters developmental tours, and made three cuts.

"More than anything, it helps to keep competing all year long as it prepares me for my near future," Figueroa said.

His near future includes the possibility of qualifying for the most important tours in the world.

"My main goal right now is Q-school," Figueroa said.

Figueroa is still living in North Carolina. And because he played for the Tar Heels when he was a student at UNC, he has unlimited, free access to practice as much as he wants there. But a change of scenery wouldn't be a bad fit either.

"I would love to be able to play in the PGA Tour, but at this point in my career, I honestly wouldn't mind playing in Europe. I mean, I would get to fly from Spain to Italy instead of going from North to South Carolina," Figueroa said.

This year has provided a great chapter in Figueroa's career. But none of that has changed his calm personality. He still enjoys spending time with his family, always faithful to his roots. And he also remains grounded.

"It is impossible not to think in what would happen if I don't qualify. … After all, there are a lot of good players and that is always a possibility," Figueroa said. "But the answer is simple. Just keep on fighting."