Jan
24
2011
Vegas, Baby!
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

As the sun was quickly vanishing behind the mountains in La Quinta, California, Jhonattan Vegas drained a 13-foot par putt to beat Gary Woodland on the second playoff hole to win the Bob Hope Classic, his second tournament as a PGA Tour rookie and his fifth career start. Similar to Vegas’ journey to the PGA Tour, he ran into a few bumps along the course, but compared to the hurdles he’s cleared just to play competitive golf, it was no sweat.

For most the day, Vegas, the first PGA Tour member from Venezuela (and now champion, obviously), was in the driver’s seat with a two-shot lead over Woodland. With both players being in position to win in the bigs for the first time in their career and defending champion Bill Haas slowly creeping up the leaderboard, I wondered if either Vegas or Woodland would falter coming down the stretch. Clearly, I wasn’t familiar with how much heart and perseverance Vegas and Woodland possessed, particularly the former.

“I hope people know about (my) story and how — especially that it’s possible to get here to the PGA Tour and win. I hope people realize that all over the world and I’m here proving that right now,” said Vegas in his post-round press conference, where he captivated the media with his enthusiasm and grace.

Vegas has had the odds stacked against him for most of his life. The 26-year-old Venezuelan fought harder than most to navigate his way to the PGA Tour. He learned to play golf with a broomstick and rocks or whatever he could get his hands on. At 17 he moved to the United States by himself hardly knowing a speck of English. He studied hard to learn the language and worked just as hard on his golf game, which brought him to the University of Texas.

“I guess life for me hasn’t always been the best,” said Vegas. “I’ve had to fight to get where I am. Just coming from Venezuela all the way here, not knowing the language, having to do with going to school, being at the school, not knowing anyway, having to fight to graduate and then get here. So it’s always been a fight. I feel like I’m a fighter and if I set a goal in front of me, I’m just going to die just to get there and fight hard to accomplish what I set out in my mind.”

In his native country, President Hugo Chavez has run bulldozers through many of the golf courses to rid of the sport for the privileged. But here now, Vegas is living the dream and hopes he can make a difference in changing the way golf is perceived in Venezuela.

“To my country, I hope this means a lot,” said Vegas. “I really hope it means change. I hope it means people changing about the sport. And some people get a little different idea of the sport.”

With the somewhat straightforward finishing holes at the PGA West’s Nicklaus Private course, I couldn’t fathom any of them making costly mistakes. I watched Haas knock his second shot on the par-5 18 on the green to about 35 feet and assumed he’d easily two-putt for birdie to tie Vegas at 28-under. But I forgot for a moment it’s golf and Haas three-putted (borderline choke?). Actually, I felt like I was witnessing one choke job after the other in the last 30 to 45 minutes.

As Vegas and Woodland prepared to hit into 18, a cameraman positioned himself next to Vegas’ father, Carlos, who was standing behind the green to catch his reaction while his son looked like he had the win in the bag. Jhonny’s second shot landed safely on the green and he had about 40 feet left. The entire time Carlos appeared surprisingly calm yet naturally very proud. He clapped loudly and genuinely when Woodland chipped his third to tap-in range, and also when Martin Laird putted out. I was standing just a few feet away and felt goosebumps in anticipation of Jhonny easily two-putting and celebrating the victory.

Jhonny ran the first putt eight feet past the hole. He had made a handful of these throughout the round. As the ball slid by the cup and missed, Carlos buried his face in his hands. Bogey. While most players might have broken down mentally, Jhonny didn’t let it get him down.

“To me, positive has been the key for me all throughout my golfing career,” said Vegas. “I don’t let things put me down. Even as bad as they are, I always try to look at the positive way of things. And that’s what I did today. It was rough. Somebody could really get down after three-putting the 18th hole. As soon as I three-putted, I just told myself, ‘You still have a chance, still have a chance, don’t put your head down, you still have a chance.’

“So that’s kind of what I did. And even throughout when I hit it in the water on 10, I just said, ‘You still have a chance, just keep fighting, keeping fighting. And I think that’s what let me win this week.'”

Gary Woodland played Division II basketball before transferring to KU to play golf

With Vegas, Woodland and Haas tied up at 27-under, the players returned to the 18th tee for a three-way playoff.

Vegas pushed his second shot so badly it bounced off the grandstands in front of a greenside bunker. It looked like the wheels were falling off, but then he hit a beautiful pitch to six feet and made the putt for birdie. He and Woodland eliminated Haas on the first extra hole.

Despite hitting his tee shot in the water on No. 10, Vegas dropped from 160 yards and knocked it to 13 feet. Woodland responded with a couple of bad chips, while Vegas coolly stepped up and made the winning putt.

“(Winning early in the season) makes life a lot easier, definitely,” said Vegas. “Just to have a win, just to be able to not worry about keeping your card or not worry about what’s next week going to look like. That’s a total weight off my shoulders so I can focus on getting better and practicing and just trying my best for the rest of the year.”

And then there’s the other very special perk — an invitation to play in The Masters. “I’m really excited,” he said. “I know it’s a dream that my dad and my American friend have to go to The Masters, just to walk around. And I mean that they — that’s kind of what they told me. It’s like before I die, just please get me to The Masters. So I just got to thank God one more time for making that happen.”

Every once in a while, a Hollywood ending does transpire.

How good is Jhonny Vegas’ story? Really good, not to mention inspiring. I feel like I’m starting to sound like a broken record because I’ve said this about almost every rookie I’ve met, but he’s another breath of fresh air. What’s more, Vegas thanked us at the end of his press conference and once again when he walked through the media center — not just out of courtesy — but genuinely.

“Thank you, guys, appreciate it. I appreciate your support for the week.”

I almost fell out of my chair…both times. It sounds so trivial, but believe me, Vegas actually is appreciative. He’s got perspective. He’s down-to-earth. He’s charming. He’s fun to watch. He has it. Just watch him play or speak for two minutes and you can’t help but pull for the guy. Let’s hope the Hope was just the first of many great accolades he receives in his long and successful career.

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)