Villegas helps Colombia refine its image

Camilo Villegas autographs a golf ball at golf exhibition in Bogota, Colombia, on March 2.

Camilo Villegas is not playing in the first PGA Tour-sanctioned event in his native Colombia, but he will have a busy week nonetheless.

Villegas is in Colombia today to play in the pro-am for the Nationwide Tour’s Pacific Rubiales Bogota Open and attend the pro-am party. He’ll fly back to the U.S. on Wednesday to prepare for the Honda Classic, which begins Thursday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Villegas was in Arizona on Sunday for the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he tied for eighth, and flew back to Florida on Monday before leaving for South America later that day.

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Camilo Villegas hits the ball during a golf exhibition in Bogota, Colombia, on March 2.

“It’s going to be a long week, but sometimes you just have to suck it up,” Villegas told Golfweek, “and take one for the team, take one for the country, take one for the PGA Tour and take one for yourself.

“I want to represent my country and show people that (Colombia) is a great place full of great people, and just like every place in the world, it has its problems.”

The decision to host an event in Colombia was made after Nationwide Tour staff, including president Bill Calfee, visited the country about six months ago. Calfee said an official with the U.S. Embassy told him, “If you had talked about having this event 10 years ago, I would’ve told you not to come. The perceptions are the same, but the reality is different.”

Said Villegas, “If the PGA Tour didn’t feel safe, they wouldn’t be there. You know how they are.”

Colombia gained a reputation for violence because of drug-related crime and problems with rebel groups. Drug-related crime has become the No. 2 cause of death in the country, after cancer, and made Colombia one of the most violent countries in the world, according to the BBC.

“It’s just like other cities in the world,” said Luis Alvarez, a Colombia native and Titleist’s manager of sales development and leadership in Latin America. “Players can go out at night and see the city. Just like everywhere else, somebody needs to be careful where they go. In the areas where the tournament is going to be staged, I can say it’s very, very safe.

“Most of the problems that have given the country the violent image are out in the rural areas.”

Bobby Gates, the tour’s leading money winner, said he is not concerned with the country’s image.

“I think it’s going to be really exciting,” Gates said. “I think there’s always the general concern about safety when you go to Central or South America, but I don’t think it’s going to be that bad.”

Players and tournament officials will stay in a hotel about two blocks from Bogota Country Club. They can choose to walk five minutes to the course, or take one of the shuttles that will run throughout the day. There will be security at the hotel and golf course. The Colombian government and U.S. Embassy are providing assistance with security, Calfee said.

The Bogota Open underscores Colombia’s strides in security under President Alvaro Uribe, a staunch U.S. ally. His policies, notably a hard line against drug traffickers, are credited with bringing in as much as $50 billion in foreign investment since 2002 and cutting the murder rate by 95 percent, according to Bloomberg News.

Uribe, whose second four-year term ends in August, recently was denied in an attempt to seek an unprecedented third term.

“It’s come a really long way since 10, 15, 20 years ago,” said Nationwide Tour player Camilo Benedetti, a Colombian. “(Uribe) has done an unbelievable job.”

However, extra security will be in place for the Nationwide players.

Danny Coulson, a security consultant for the PGA Tour, wrote in a letter to players that was obtained by Golfweek that Colombia “has pledged and provided outstanding support’’ in advance of the tournament.

The Tour does not discuss security arrangements, per organization policy, but precautions are being taken to ensure player safety. An open letter was written to players outlining precautions that will be taken in transporting players from the airport and around town. “It is very important to use transportation authorized by our hosts and not to venture out in an unapproved vehicle,” Coulson wrote in the letter.

A smooth week will help Colombia counter its violent image.

“Finally bringing the Nationwide Tour to Colombia is a dream come true for me,” Villegas wrote in a letter to players. “It means a great deal to me to see an event of this stature come to my country.”

• • •

There’s a new name, but the same face, atop the Nationwide Tour money list.

Bobby Gates, formerly Robert Gates, is still leading the list after a win and third-place showing in his first two events (he MC’d in Panama). Panama was the first event he played as ‘Bobby.’

Gates didn’t change his name to avoid confusion with the current U.S. secretary of defense, who mentored Gates while both were at Texas A&M (the younger as a golfer, the elder as the school’s president). “I think Bobby’s less formal,” he said.

• • •

It’s only three events into the 2010 season, but Chris Kirk already is having the most successful season of his Nationwide Tour career. Kirk has earned $90,294, good for fourth on the money list; it’s the most he has earned in three seasons on the tour. Kirk tied for 54th at the season-opening New Zealand Open, then lost a playoff to Jim Herman at the Moonah Classic. He tied for ninth last week in Panama.

Entering this season, Kirk had just one top-10 in 33 career Nationwide Tour starts.

Kirk, a member of the 2007 U.S. Walker Cup team, earned just $13,606 in 13 Nationwide Tour starts last season. He missed nine cuts and had just one top-25 finish.

Kirk has gotten assistance from Davis Love III’s younger brother, Mark, who used to caddie for Davis.

“Mark isn’t really a teacher, but his father (Davis Love Jr.) was one of the best teachers, and he was big on drills,” Kirk told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So, Mark has all these drills, which has worked great for me. He helps me pick out the right drill that’s appropriate to my game.”

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