LA QUINTA, Calif. – Jhonattan Vegas isn’t exactly sure how his Venezuelan parents came up with the unusual spelling of his first name.
If the 26-year-old rookie manages to keep up his swift start at the Bob Hope Classic, the golf world will have to memorize it quickly.
Vegas shot a 5-under 67 in windy conditions Thursday for a share of the second-round lead with Boo Weekley.
Weekley had a 66 to match Vegas at 13-under 131 in the 90-hole tournament on four Palm Springs-area courses. Charles Howell III (66) and Chris Couch (65) were a stroke back.
Although Vegas bogeyed his final hole on the Nicklaus Private course, he leads the field with 17 birdies. With power and accuracy off the tee, Vegas used an improved short game to get on top early in just his fifth PGA Tour event.
“It’s good to be hitting the ball well and putting well, especially on a course like these ones where you’ve always got a lot of birdie opportunities,” said Vegas, who played at the University of Texas before excelling on the Nationwide Tour last year.
Although many pros still don’t know him – Weekley had never met Vegas before they shook hands in the media tent after the second round – others already call him “Jhonny Vegas.” As for the unique spelling on his birth certificate, Vegas realizes it might take a while to catch on.
“I’m happy they did it that way, because it’s something different,” Vegas said. “I mean, you only see one Jhonattan spelled that way, so once you see it, you know that it’s me.”
Vegas moved to the United States in 2002, spending nearly two years improving his English enough to attend college. He became the first Venezuelan to earn a PGA Tour card last year.
The sport is viewed with a raised eyebrow in Venezuela by President Hugo Chavez, who calls it a pastime of the rich. In hilly Caracas, the government has threatened to replaced golf courses occupying valuable areas of flat land with housing that will be less vulnerable to rain and mudslides.
“I’d love the chance to tell people about golf in Venezuela,” said Vegas, whose father runs a catering company. “(Chavez) has always said that golf is for elite people, I guess, and as we all know here, it’s not that way. But I guess he’s got that mentality, so I really hope to sit down with him and talk to him, and tell him it’s not that way.”
Chavez made the cut at last week’s Sony Open in Hawaii, although he didn’t get to play Sunday due to the weather-shortened field. He got off the islands in time to survey all four courses in Palm Springs before Wednesday’s opening round.
The Hope Classic typically is dominated by low scores, and both leaders won’t be surprised if the winner of the five-round event checks in at 30 under.
“We’ve played two of the easier courses, me and Mr. Vegas, so it just all depends on what can happen tomorrow,” Weekley said. “I feel like I can go out there and shoot 3 or 4 under, keep myself in the hunt … and still have a chance somewhere down the line there.”
Weekley birdied his final two Nicklaus holes, wrapping up a sharp round on perhaps the tournament’s easiest course. The veteran changed putters after finishing in 27th-place tie at the Sony Open in Hawaii last week, and the switch already has produced remarkable results.
“To 12 feet, 15 feet, I feel like I can make it,” Weekley said. “I would say for about the last year, I ain’t felt that in a while. I was hoping that this would happen.”
Howell shot his second 66 of the tournament, while Couch made three birdies on his final four holes. Keegan Bradley and Brian Davis are two strokes off the lead at 133, while 29 players – including David Duval and Matt Kuchar – were within five strokes of the lead.