Editor’s note: Golf360’s Sean Martin talked with Jhonattan Vegas late last week, just as the Venezuelan was starting his move to win the Bob Hope Classic.
LA QUINTA, Calif – A 20-foot-deep waste bunker bisects the 10th hole at PGA West’s Nicklaus Private course. Most players on this breezy Thursday morning opt for the safe route, down the left fairway. Left, la izquierda in his native tongue, never seems to enter Jhonattan Vegas’ mind.
Driver in hand, Vegas’ first tee shot of the day easily carries the hazard and settles in the fairway. No surprise, since Vegas, arguably the PGA Tour’s most powerful player, has overcome obstacles throughout his career.
He grew up on a nine-hole course in a Venezuelan oil camp, hitting rocks with a broomstick when he started the game as a toddler. At 17, he knew just a handful of English words when he moved by himself from Venezuela to the United States.
No matter the situation, Vegas has solved it with perseverance and a smile, which explains today’s predicament. A six-seat cart is shuttling players, caddies and families from the range to the 10th tee. Attendance at the Hope is sparse, but one cart isn’t enough to transport all of Vegas’ supporters. Combine potential with charisma, and you’ll find plenty of people willing to help you achieve your dreams.
Vegas’ physical talents, encased in a 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame, are immediately evident, but it took more than that to get him to the PGA Tour. “He had a team around him, all people that cared about Jhonattan Vegas,” said John Fields, the men’s coach at the University of Texas.
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There may be no greater display of love than letting your son move a continent away to pursue his dreams. Vegas arrived in the United States in 2002 with his clubs, a bag of clothes and 10 words of English in his vocabulary.
He enjoyed his life growing up in the oil camps in Venezuela. Each afternoon, he’d ride his bike from school to the local golf course and play with the other kids living in the camp.
“It was a great life,” he said.
But the short, nine-hole courses could only take him so far. Vegas won the 2001 Venezuela Junior, which earned him an invitation to the Junior World Championships at San Diego’s Torrey Pines. He finished sixth.
During that trip to the States, Jhonattan’s father, Carlos, walked into the office of Houston-based teaching pro Kevin Kirk and said, “I’d like to leave him with you,” according to Kirk.
Carlos, who’d taught his four sons the game, and Jhonattan were in Houston to visit Jhonattan’s old swing coach, Franci Betancourt. Betancourt had moved from Venezuela to Houston two years earlier to teach with Kirk, one of his former students.
Kirk was an American whose father had worked in the oil business. He spent part of his youth in Venezuela and learned golf from Betancourt.
Vegas was among a handful of promising Venezuelan players that came to Houston to further their golf careers. Some of the players, including Vegas, lived in Betancourt’s home.
“There were times, especially during the holidays, you miss your family, you miss your friends, you miss everything about your country,” he said. “But I always kept my goal in front of me and knew that I wanted to do this.
“That’s why I always stayed positive, worked hard and kept getting better.”
Betancourt’s wife, Alba, drove Jhonattan to English classes at a local community college in the morning, then to the golf course to practice. His game advanced enough for him to Monday qualify for the 2003 Shell Houston Open.
He passed the TOEFL (English-proficiency exam) and SAT later that year, two impressive feats that didn’t garner as much attention as the Houston Open, but were just as important to his development.
“I remember when I got the results and I saw the score, I started screaming,” he said. “I worked so hard to pass them.”
Passing those tests allowed him to enroll at the University of Texas.
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There’s several reasons Vegas is one of the most exciting rookies on the PGA Tour this year. Sure, he hits the ball unimaginable distances (he averaged 328 yards per tee shot in Thursday’s second round). He’s the first PGA Tour player from Venezuela, and one of the most promising players from a region poised to be the site of golf’s next boom.
But there’s something more important. It’s the fluorescent white smile and the charisma. As Vegas waited to tee off Thursday, he didn’t retreat behind the ropes, where he’d be off-limits to fans and media. No, he laughed and joked.
“He has that big smile, he’s well-spoken and very respectful,” said Keith Fox, one of his amateur partners from the previous day. On the putting green that morning, Vegas approached Fox and wished him luck. Vegas is a marketer’s dream. Fox should know, having worked in marketing for Apple and Cisco.
Said Fields, “He’s just so appreciative of everything he’s earned. And if you really are super appreciative, what do you do? You give your absolute best. And that’s what he does, in everything he does.”
Fields recalls watching Vegas walk down the 18th hole at Sawgrass Country Club during his Longhorn debut. Vegas was holding one shoe in his hand.
“He got the worst blisters you could ever get on your feet, and the guy never said a darn thing,” Fields said. “He was so appreciative of getting (the shoes), he wasn’t going to say a word about them not fitting.”
The University of Texas gave Vegas all the athletic gear he could ever need. He needed help getting by day-to-day, though. That’s when Dick Kemp, an Austin-based real-estate developer stepped in.
Kemp had worked with Rick Forester, another Houston-based pro who’d helped Vegas. Kemp watched Vegas play in Texas’ Morris Williams Intercollegiate and kept in touch with the young Venezuelan.
“Times were tough,” Kemp said. “The scholarship didn’t cover everything. … It was very obvious, the need. He didn’t have the bare essentials.”
Kemp and his wife became Vegas’ legal guardians in the United States so they could assist Vegas. He’s taken on a similar role in the life of Jhonattan’s younger brothers, Julio, who plays golf at Texas, and Billy.
With Kemp’s assistance, Vegas could focus on his school and his golf. His English had improved during his time in the States, but he still needed help during his first couple years at Texas. After golf practice, he’d spend 2-3 hours with a tutor, often leaving campus at 10 p.m. He earned his kinesiology degree in 2008.
“I like to finish what I started,” Vegas said.
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There’s no guarantee that Vegas’ talent will lead to riches and fame. There’s plenty of can’t-miss kids that do. But Vegas has one thing in his favor: he’s improved every year.
“In baseball terms, Jhonattan Vegas was the guy with a 102-mph fastball but no control,” Fields said of the player that first came to the University of Texas. Betancourt and Kirk helped Vegas control his power and improve his short game.
Vegas’ college career could be described as solid, not spectacular. But months after graduating, he made the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur at Olympic Club. He advanced to the Q-School finals for the first time in 2008, finishing 115th at PGA West to earn conditional Nationwide Tour status. He was 63rd on the money list in 2009, then improved to seventh last year to earn his Tour card.
Vegas won last year’s Wichita Open to help earn his card, then closed the year with a six-shot victory in the Argentina Open.
Vegas hopes his success helps golf in his home country. The sport has come under attack since Hugo Chavez became president in 1999. Chavez has closed many courses, including the oil-field tracks Vegas grew up on.
“I want to be the first one … representing my country,” he said, “and try to show the world that people from Venezuela can still play golf.”
Vegas’ rounds of 64-67 to open the Hope have him tied for the lead with Boo Weekley. His statistics are what’s most impressive. He’s averaged 315.0 yards off the tee, fourth-best in the field, but is also first in accuracy, having missed just two fairways.
He’s first among PGA Tour members in clubhead speed (125 mph) this year. His club was measured at 138 mph during the ‘07 Amateur, Kirk said. That’s God-given talent. It’s been refined through hard work, though.
“There’s a lot of kids that want to be good players,” Kirk said, “and there’s a few kids that need to be good players.
“He’s had to overcome some big things. Imagine showing up in the States, and you don’t speak the language, you have a set of golf clubs and a bag full of clothes, and you have to make it work.”
Imagine that. Then realize that Jhonattan Vegas did it.