CARACAS, Venezuela – While some golfers in Venezuela see a dim future, Jhonattan Vegas sees an opportunity.
Vegas has become the first Venezuelan to earn a PGA Tour card, a time when golf is under assault in his country, with President Hugo Chavez calling it a pastime of the rich and threatening to seize elite clubs to make way for public housing. Chavez’s government already has shut down some courses, including the one where Vegas’ father was the groundskeeper and introduced his son to the game.
The 26-year-old Vegas qualified for next year’s PGA Tour by finishing among the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour money list in his third season of professional golf. He wants to use his position on the PGA Tour to help keep golf alive in his homeland, particularly among those who can’t afford to join private clubs.
“One of the things I hope to do for the country is take the sport to the people, and to have people get to know golf a lot better,” Vegas said in an interview with The Associated Press.
When he secured his card last month, Vegas achieved a dream that long eluded Venezuelan golfers.
“We come from a super humble family that always had to work to achieve things,” Vegas said. “But my father always gave everything he had to provide us with that opportunity.”
Especially out on the fairways.
Vegas grew up with his parents and three brothers in a remote oil-drilling camp in Morichal, in the swath of oil fields along the Orinoco River. His father sold food to the oil workers and was the groundskeeper for the camp’s nine-hole golf course.
That now-abandoned course is one of six that have been closed by Venezuela’s government in the past seven years – all but one of them on land owned by the state oil company.
It’s a disappointing trend for Vegas.
“Unfortunately here in Venezuela, they’re closing the courses on us instead of opening new ones” as many countries are around the world, he said.
Chavez has warned that he could expropriate private courses in Caracas to make way for public housing complexes. In one televised appearance last year, Chavez called golf a “bourgeois sport” while discussing his plans for transforming Venezuela into a socialist state.
For his part, Vegas says Venezuelan golfers haven’t done enough to broaden the sport’s popularity.
“We’ve created that stigma because in reality we haven’t done anything to take golf to the people,” he said.
Of the 17 courses that remain in the country, only two are public, severely limiting the access to those who can’t afford to play at the private clubs.
“Maybe what I’m looking to do here is ignite something, to see if we can change the perception of golf in the country,” Vegas said.
Venezuela “hasn’t done anything at all to create a system in which any kid off the street can come and hit golf balls,” he said. “Maybe we’ll see if we change that paradigm from now on.”
Vegas was all smiles at a national tournament in Caracas this month as he shook hands with fans, signed autographs and posed for photos with children.
Among the hundreds who turned out to watch him play at the exclusive Valle Arriba Golf Club was his 55-year-old father, for whom the place held special memories.
Carlos Vegas grew up in a poor neighborhood next to the course and remembers earning money as a boy by picking up stray golf balls. He used an empty juice carton, fashioning it into “a sort of glove,” to collect them.
Carlos Vegas’ passion for the sport was infectious. He recalled that Jhonattan was about 2 years old when he started imitating his father’s golfing stance and took swings using a broomstick or club-like plastic rods.
“When he was about 2 1/2, we had to cut him some little golf clubs – like three irons – so that he could do what he liked best,” the father said.
Later, Carlos Vegas took his son to a golf school that was run by Franci Betancourt in the eastern town of Punta de Mata. Betancourt soon became Jhonattan’s mentor and today is his trainer.
After winning the national youth golf championship at 17, Vegas moved to the United States to enroll at the University of Texas, where he studied kinesiology and continued to refine his golf game. He helped the Longhorns finish 11th at the 2007 NCAA championship, placing 39th individually.
Vegas turned pro in 2008 and got his first win this August when he captured the Wichita Open. He finished 2010 with more than $330,000 in earnings, putting him seventh on the Nationwide money list and assuring his spot on the PGA Tour.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 230-pound Vegas, who was third on the Nationwide circuit in driving distance at 312.9 yards, plans to make his PGA Tour debut at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January.
Betancourt is confident his pupil has the talent to eventually be among “the top 20 in the world.”
Colombian Camilo Villegas is glad Vegas will be joining the ranks of Latin Americans on the Tour.
“I played with him in a couple of South American tournaments, and the one I remember the most is the last one I played in Colombia,” Villegas said during last week’s Australian Masters. “He’s a strong kid who hits it far. It’s nice to see him play good this year and get his card.
“I’ve always said, ‘I don’t want to be the only Colombian on tour, and we need more South Americans on tour.’ Adding Jhonattan is nice. He’s a great kid to have on tour.”
In Venezuela, golf fans are hoping the sport will get a boost from Vegas’ emergence in a country where baseball has long been the No. 1 sport and Chavez’s threats have halted construction of new courses.
The course shutdowns by the government – most recently on Margarita Island after Chavez ordered a hotel expropriated – have hindered efforts to expand the sport in the country, said Juan Nutt, president of the PGA of Venezuela.
He’s hoping Vegas can help turn that around.
“When Jhonattan is playing in next year’s Tour and he goes on television, there are going to be many more followers of golf in this country, even if they aren’t golfers,” Nutt said. “A lot more attention is going to be paid to a sport that traditionally hasn’t been followed much in this country.”