Martin: Venezuela's Vegas carries Texas to win
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – You may have heard this story before. Teenager moves from Venezuela to the United States without knowing a word of English. He learns the language, then develops into a promising golf prospect at the University of Texas.
NCAA Men's Championship: Match Play, Day 2
Check out images from Saturday's semifinal matches at the 2012 NCAA Men's Championship at Rivera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
That was Jhonattan Vegas’ path to the PGA Tour. His younger brother, Julio, is following in those footsteps, and is a big reason why Texas has an opportunity to win its first NCAA Championship since 1972.
Vegas scored Texas’ winning point in its semifinal defeat of Oregon. He birdied Riviera’s final three holes to beat Oregon’s Andrew Vijarro, 2 up, and clinch Texas’ 3-2 win.
“I was pretty calm the whole way,” Vegas said. “I was patient and fortunately hit great shots coming in, and I won.”
The Longhorns advanced in spite of losses by Jordan Spieth, the nation’s No. 1 player, and third-ranked Dylan Frittelli. The nation’s top two teams – No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Alabama – will play Sunday in the final match at Riviera Country Club.
Vegas is No. 20 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, higher status than Jhonattan ever achieved, and will be an All-American this season. Julio finished 21st in stroke play this week and beat Washington’s Chris Williams, a member of last year’s Walker Cup team, in the quarterfinals.
Julio’s development has been aided by his brother’s success, specifically Jhonattan’s win at the 2011 Bob Hope Classic. “Now that I’m (on the PGA Tour), he listens a little bit more,” Jhonattan said.
Julio came to the U.S. at 16 and lived with Jhonattan in an apartment in Austin, Texas, while learning English. He enrolled at Texas after approximately 18 months in the States.
Julio, a two-time Venezuela Junior champ and runner-up to Jhonattan at the 2007 Venezuela Amateur, didn’t play in his first two collegiate seasons. He was 112th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings last season.
“He’s farther along than Jhonattan was (at Texas), but that’s because of Jhonattan,” Texas head coach John Fields said. “When Jhonattan won the Bob Hope, it just expanded Julio’s mind and gave him the opportunity to believe that, If my brother can do that, I can do that. He’s the guy who put us on his back today.”
Texas looked like it would collect an easy victory Saturday over the Ducks. Eugene Wong led Jordan Spieth for most of the day in the final match, but the Longhorns had back-nine leads in the first four matches. As it so often happens in these matches, though, it became close.
Texas’ Toni Hakula beat Oregon’s Robbie Ziegler, 3 and 1, in the day’s first match. Cody Gribble clinched a second Texas point by hitting gap wedge from 115 yards to 2 feet on the 17th. The birdie gave him a 2-and-1 win over Oregon’s Jonathan Woo.
Oregon had to win the final three matches to advance, and almost did. The Ducks were 1 up in the final two matches and all-square in the other, which pitted Texas’ Dylan Frittelli and Oregon’s Daniel Miernicki.
Miernicki took care of his match. He hit a 2-iron from 275 yards onto the green on the par-5 17th, then holed the 30-foot eagle putt to go 1 up. He birdied the 18th to win, 2 up, in a match-up of first-team All-Americans. Miernicki also eagled the par-4 eighth hole by holing a pitching-wedge from 162 yards.
It all came down to the match between Vegas and Oregon’s Andrew Vijarro. Vegas had squared the match by holing a 15-foot birdie putt from the fringe on the par-3 16th. He reached the 17th green in two shots with a 3-wood while Vijarro had to lay up. Vijarro hit his approach to 4 feet but missed the birdie putt, allowing Vegas to go 1 up. Vegas hit his approach on 18 to 15 feet, then sank the putt.
“I wanted to make that putt,” Vegas said. “I wanted to finish on a birdie.”