Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is no friend of golf. He has called it a “bourgeois sport” played primarily by lazy, rich people in carts. He has closed six of the country’s courses and said the government should appropriate private urban land for public housing.
“Do you mean to tell me this is a people’s sport?” he said in 2009. “It is not.”
That was before Jhonattan Vegas came along. Two Sundays ago, Vegas, 26, a rookie on the PGA Tour whose golfing family suffered as a result of Chavez’s course closures, won the Bob Hope Classic in La Quinta, California, in a stirring playoff, becoming the first player from Venezuela to win a Tour event.
He was almost instantly acclaimed a national hero, then solidified that position a week later by finishing tied for third in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. Vegas had a share of the lead midway through Sunday’s final round, and after a gutsy but unsuccessful go-for-broke final hole he finished three strokes behind the winner, Bubba Watson.
After Vegas won the Hope Classic, Chavez, who has not, it is believed, put buildings on any of the courses, proclaimed that he was not “an enemy of golf, or any other sport.”
He said he would call to congratulate Vegas.
“He beat all of the gringos,” he said.
Vegas declined to discuss in detail Chavez and his attitude toward golf as he prepared last week at Torrey Pines. Neither would he talk about how Chavez’s actions had affected him or even of the apparent softening of the president’s position.
“You know what, he’s the president,” Vegas said, laughing. “He does whatever he feels like. I just got to focus on being a golfer and doing my thing.”
Several years ago, Chavez closed three courses in the Vegas family’s home state, Monagas. All were essentially clubs for workers in the nation’s wealthy oil industry. Vegas’ father, Carlos, who at one time worked as a caddie and later became a food concessionaire to two of the clubs, decided his son would have to leave Venezuela if he were to pursue golf seriously.
Vegas was 17 and spoke no English when he was separated from his parents and three brothers. He was eventually placed in the care of Franci Betancourt, a Venezuelan golf pro, and his wife, Alba, who had settled in Houston. Under the tutelage of the Betancourts and Kevin Kirk, a prominent golf instructor in Texas, Vegas learned the language and worked on his game. He went on to graduate from the University of Texas with a degree in kinesiology, to make the second-tier Nationwide Tour and ultimately to reach the PGA Tour.
“All of a sudden, his father didn’t have a job; the kids didn’t have anywhere to play golf,” Jonathan Coles, an eight-time Venezuelan national champion golfer who is from Cambridge, Massachusetts said of Vegas’ departure. “Everything in their family that had been built around golf was just taken away from one day to the next.”
“The old man told me that when he told Jhonattan, the kid thought it was totally impossible,” Coles said. “He didn’t speak a word of English and thought he was going to have a terrible time going to school.”
Vegas acknowledged that his transition was not an easy one. There were days, he said, when school, golf and English studies took him well into the night.
The long climb to the verge of stardom has seemingly fashioned Vegas into a golfer who is mentally tough and outwardly cheerful, a single-minded, focused individual who appreciates his good fortune and makes time for just about everyone he meets.
Vegas exhibits the kind of joy that the young Tiger Woods used to bring to the course. The similarities between Woods and Vegas are striking. They share a love of competition, of playing under intense pressure and of shotmaking. The differences are obvious, too. Vegas smiles his way around the course, makes more eye contact and sometimes even laughs after the occasional mis-hit.
“It’s because he’s enjoying the game, even when he hits it bad,” Betancourt said. “That’s not common. I would say that’s one attribute that is something that is really personal. You can see it in the way he walks between the ropes. He has that look that says: ‘Well, sir, here I am. I guess I belong here.’”
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