2006: Camilo Villegas pga

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By Jeff Rude

Camilo Villegas is so ripped, the veins in his forearms bulge when he addresses the ball. His clothes are so hip, tight and colorful, you might figure he’s more ready for dancing at a nightclub than swinging a golf club.

You see the Latin flair in the walk, the club flip, the shaggy hair, the shiny side-zip pants. There’s the tiny waist, the thick belt, the big buckle. And we’re not even to the green yet, where, of course, he further takes boredom out of golf by reading putts as if he’s a contorted squid lunging into a pushup.

“There’s your new sex symbol on the PGA Tour,” said Chris Tuten, aligned with Villegas in the past as Florida assistant golf coach and now as director of Tour promotions for Cobra Golf.

Pile the rookie rarities of three top-3 finishes and $1.25 million onto that Ballesteros-like swarthy look and you might think ca-ME-lo b-JAY-gahs is Spanish for chick magnet.

That hardly is dispelled when Florida coach Buddy Alexander labels him a “rock star” in Gainesville and says that on a recent Ladies Night at the Swamp restaurant, women were several deep “standing in line to say hello or say they watched him on TV.”

Yet beneath all that apparent glamour is a completely different snapshot of the Tour’s first member from Colombia, where, oddly enough, it is not entirely safe for him to return now that he is rich and famous. Below the glitz, simply, is a grinder. Rain on cement isn’t more grounded. Behind the fitness and fashion is one of the most single-minded, hard-working, organized athletes anywhere.

In college the perfectionist numbered his socks for sake of order, and his brother Manny and other teammates began calling him “Grandpa” because of his set ways. Six months before matriculating, Villegas spoke little English and had his coaches worried about academics. Alexander said he didn’t know words like “interpretation” as a freshman. Teammates would tease him about being English challenged. Yet Villegas wouldn’t make less than an A after that first year. He would make two Academic All-America teams – in addition to being a first-team All-American three times as a player – and graduate with a business degree and 3.8 average.

Spend even a couple of minutes with the 24-year-old and you sense the drive and work ethic he got from his parents, both architects, in Medellin. You will hear him say the goal is championship golf and nothing and no one will get in the way. You will hear him talk maturely about managing time and enjoying the ride and taking advantage of opportunity.

“He is the most disciplined and dedicated guy I’ve ever had,” said Alexander, in his 19th year as the Gators’ coach.

Tuten seconds. “He’s as focused as anybody I’ve ever seen,” the ex-Florida aide said. “I grew up on the same high school team as David Duval and (Villegas) has got that same kind of world-class focus.”

This is not your AJGA silver-spoon story. The Villegas phenomenon is the tale of a humble kid who beat long odds coming out of a South American country long known for drug trafficking. A little, lean kid from a land composed of a large majority of low-income residents and a small middle class, where it’s not uncommon for a laborer to make $150 per month.

A kid with a mission.

“He sacrificed things like hanging around friends and parties because he wanted to be a great golfer,” said Manuel De La Rosa, president of the Colombian Golf Federation. “He never fooled around. I’ve never even seen him with a beer.”

Golf is an elite sport in Colombia, with all but a couple of the roughly 50 courses private. Some memberships sold for $180,000 last year. There were no daily-fee courses a decade ago and no public practice range until two years ago.

Out of this environment – hardly a professional golf breeding ground – comes someone who looks like he has the shotmaking and mental skill to be a Tour star for a couple of decades.

“The last place you would expect this to come from is Colombia,” said David Mackintosh, a golf correspondent for the Buenos Aires Herald who has covered the sport in Latin America for 25 years.

Villegas not only has put golf on the front pages of Colombian newspapers for the first time, but he is a role model who could stimulate domestic golf growth and help the country’s image abroad. Colombia’s City TV purchased rights to PGA Tour telecasts shortly before Villegas tied for second at the Ford Championship in Miami, where, in a Tour rarity, many of the estimated 3,000 Colombians in his final-round gallery waved their yellow, blue and red national flags. De La Rosa says Colombians who have never played golf are now watching it on TV.

“In Colombia, it’s not what he’s going to do for golf,” said Doral Blue Course superintendent Juan F. Gutierrez, 31, who also grew up playing junior golf in Colombia. “It’s what he’s going to do for our country. Everybody thinks of Colombia as having drug lords and violence. What a great athlete will do is show there’s actually good people from there. He has all that on his shoulders.”

Colombia’s reputation still suffers from the dangerous reign of cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s richest and most violent criminals until his death in 1993. Escobar ran his empire out of Medellin, Villegas’ hometown. That history is why German Rubiano, a Villegas follower at the Shell Houston Open, said he dreads flying to foreign airports with his Colombian passport, saying he once endured an “unpleasant” three-hour strip search.

But Villegas and other Colombians say their country’s drug problems have improved. Villegas says a very small percentage of the population engages in illegal business. He says he endured jokes about cocaine from friends throughout college and admits to seeing cocaine.

“But the funny thing is, I didn’t see it in Colombia,” he said. “I saw it Gainesville. That tells you something.”

These days, Colombia president Alvaro Uribe, educated at Harvard and Oxford, has joined the U.S. war on terror, in his case cracking down on leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas. Those terrorists, De La Rosa says, hide in the mountains and jungles and run the country’s largest drug cartel. It is little wonder that Manny Villegas, a Florida sophomore, told Alexander he didn’t feel safe driving from Medellin to Bogata.

The guerrillas, too, are responsible for “95 percent of the kidnapping,” De La Rosa said.

That is not lost on Villegas and those around him.

As with other prominent Latin American athletes who strike riches, Villegas has become a possible target. Knowing he has to be careful, he canceled a trip home in April “because things have changed a lot. There’s been a lot of commotion and reaction. Newspapers and the Internet make it available for people to see how much money I make. It’s not the most secure place. I’m just hoping people value what I do, that I’m trying to do the best for my country.”

Says De La Rosa, “If he keeps on winning money, it’s going to be tough on him because of the possibility (of kidnapping). He’ll need a bodyguard or something. Many rich people have to take precautions.”

Villegas first hit a golf ball at age 6, at his father’s club. By the time he got to college he had won the Junior Orange Bowl and finished second to Hunter Mahan in the U.S. Junior. He won eight tournaments as a Gator and apparently had fun along the way. Villegas delighted in riding his scooter, which maxed out at 30 mph, with the front wheel up.

“The guy can do a wheelie for a mile,” Alexander said. “He’s got a lot of little boy in him. Every time I was in the parking lot, he’d immediately do one. I’m going crazy and begging him not to do that. He’s got a little daredevil in him, a lot of fun and life in him.”

He was known, too, for his artistic, detailed yardage books, complete with drawings and arrows everywhere. That’s about being prepared and meticulous.

“The word ‘good’ is not good enough for him,” said Manny, who lives with his older brother in the modest Gainesville house Villegas recently had built. “He wants perfect. Even when it comes to folding his clothes. He wants to fold them perfectly. When it came to buying a car (Chevy Tahoe), he went to 100 different dealers because he wanted the best deal. And I need to keep the house clean or he’ll be pissed.”

A perfect body seems the preference, too. Back in college, the fat on Camilo’s 5-foot-9 frame was only 4.5 percent, the stuff of marathoners, the result of treadmill sprints and heavy lifting of cold steel that, with the help of some creatine, raised his weight from 130 to 165 pounds. At one point, Alexander had to back him off because of concerns about muscle-bound tightness.

“He’s passionate,” Gutierrez said. “He’s Latin. That’s the way we’re built. Everything we do we do 100 percent.”

Villegas was so hooked on sculpting his body for a long career and to eliminate recurring back problems caused by a hard swing, he decided on twice-daily workouts. That meant cardiovascular and abdominal attention in the morning, then lifting and stretching later. As a result, he transformed from one of the shortest Florida players to one of the longest.

Now, as a touring pro, he’s into maintaining his muscular physique in addition to improving flexibility and core stability. That means lifting light weights with high repetitions, stretching and leaving sweat all over the treadmill. Two days before the Shell Houston Open, he ran 30 minutes at 8 mph.

“Intense cardio, man,” he said. “I went at it hard.”

You had better work out if you’re going to read putts Villegas-style, with your body horizontal and low to the ground. He tried that in mid-round during a poor putting patch last year and discovered he could see the line better. “It’s something very different,” he said. “But I think people like different stuff.”

That would apply to his clothing as well. He refused to wear orange-and-white saddle shoes as a Gator, but he has expressed himself flamboyantly since he signed with J. Lindeberg after turning pro in 2004. Last year, Villegas wore the colors of the Colombian flag at a Nationwide Tour event in Panama. And later in the year, he trotted out a Gator getup – orange shoes, belt and hat, blue pants and white shirt. At Doral, he accented an otherwise all-white outfit with the orange shoes and belt.

“You always want to look and feel good out there,” he said. “Clothing is one way to express yourself. Every time I get a box of clothing from Lindeberg, I can’t wait to open it. I’m conscious of valuing all the great things happening to me.”

It follows that when Ian Poulter walked onto the Houston Open range wearing snakeskin shoes, Villegas came over, bent down and felt them.

“Python,” Poulter said. “You like these, don’t you?”

“How much are they?” Villegas asked.

“Very expensive,” Poulter said. “For you, peanuts. You’re not the only one who can have fun with a pair of shoes. And I’ve got some scary stuff coming, off the planet – electric pink, electric orange. We’re going to make Doug Sanders look tame.”

Sydney Wolf, a Puerto Rico Golf Association executive big in Latin golf circles, lauds Villegas as a wonderful model in his part of the world.

“But his clothing has taken us by surprise,” Wolf said. “He’s a trendsetter, but I’d hate to see us wearing his clothes. I don’t think we’d look good.”

But the girls, surely they think Villegas looks good in Lindeberg. More than one person, of course, has told him females think he’s hot. But Villegas, he wants to talk golf, not girls. We’re back to focus.

“If that’s what they think, it’s great,” he said of the hot topic. “If people like the way you play, the way you dress, the way you look, that’s all good. But the bottom line is my goal is to play good golf.

“This can be a dangerous lifestyle. Things come quick, but they can go quick. If you get to where you want to stay in the nicest hotels and feel comfortable and the budget goes up and up, all of a sudden you could start playing bad and the lights go off. So, bottom line, you have to have your priorities in order. You have to remember where you came from.”

Grounded, again.

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