PGA rookie Vegas aiming to boost golf in Venezuela

By Associated PressNovember 27, 2010, 5:49 pm

CARACAS. Venezuela – While some golfers in Venezuela see a dim future, Jhonattan Vegas sees an opportunity.

Vegas has become the first Venezuelan to earn a PGA Tour card at the same time that golf is under assault in his country with President Hugo Chavez calling it a pastime of the rich and threatening to seize elite clubs to make way for public housing. Chavez’s government already has shut down some courses, including the one where Vegas’ father was the groundskeeper and first introduced his son to the game.

The 26-year-old Vegas qualified for next year’s PGA Tour by finishing among the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour money list in his third season of professional golf. He wants to use his position on the PGA Tour to help keep golf alive in his homeland, particularly among those who can’t afford to join expensive private clubs.

“One of the things I hope to do for the country is take the sport to the people, and to have people get to know golf a lot better,” Vegas said in an interview with The Associated Press.

When he secured his card last month, Vegas achieved a dream that long eluded Venezuelan golfers.

“We come from a super humble family that always had to work to achieve things,” Vegas said. “But my father always gave everything he had to provide us with that opportunity.”

Especially out on the fairways.

Vegas grew up with his parents and three brothers in a remote oil drilling camp in Morichal, in the swath of oil fields along the Orinoco River. His father sold food to the oil workers and was the groundskeeper for the camp’s nine-hole golf course.

That now-abandoned course is one of six that have been closed by Venezuela’s government in the past seven years – all but one of them on land owned by the state oil company.

It’s a disappointing trend for Vegas.

“Unfortunately here in Venezuela, they’re closing the courses on us instead of opening new ones” as many countries are around the world, he said.

Chavez has warned that he could expropriate private courses in Caracas to make way for public housing complexes. In one televised appearance last year, Chavez called golf a “bourgeois sport” while discussing his plans for transforming Venezuela into a socialist state.

For his part, Vegas says Venezuelan golfers haven’t done enough to broaden the sport’s popularity.

“We’ve created that stigma because in reality we haven’t done anything to take golf to the people,” he said.

Of the 17 courses that remain in the country, only two are public, severely limiting the access to those who can’t afford to play at the private clubs.

“Maybe what I’m looking to do here is ignite something, to see if we can change the perception of golf in the country,” Vegas said.

Venezuela “hasn’t done anything at all to create a system in which any kid off the street can come and hit golf balls,” he said. “Maybe we’ll see if we change that paradigm from now on.”

Vegas was all smiles at a national tournament in Caracas this month as he shook hands with fans, signed autographs and posed for photos with children.

Among the hundreds who turned out to watch him play at the exclusive Valle Arriba Golf Club was his 55-year-old father, for whom the place held special memories.

Carlos Vegas grew up in a poor neighborhood next to the course and remembers earning money as a boy by picking up stray golf balls. He used an empty juice carton, fashioning it into “a sort of glove,” to collect them.

Carlos Vegas’ passion for the sport was infectious. He recalled that Jhonattan was about 2 years old when he started imitating his father’s golfing stance and took swings using a broomstick or club-like plastic rods.

“When he was about 2 1/2 , we had to cut him some little golf clubs – like three irons – so that he could do what he liked best,” the father said.

Later, Carlos Vegas took his son to a golf school in the eastern town of Punta de Mata that was run by Franci Betancourt. He soon became Jhonattan’s mentor and today is his trainer.

After winning the national youth golf championship at 17, Vegas moved to the United States to enroll at the University of Texas, where he studied kinesiology and continued to refine his golf game. He helped the Longhorns finish 11th at the 2007 NCAA championship, placing 39th individually.

Vegas turned pro in 2008 and got his first win this August when he captured the Wichita Open. He finished 2010 with more than $330,000 in earnings, putting him seventh on the Nationwide money list and assuring his spot on the PGA Tour.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Vegas, who was third on the Nationwide circuit in driving distance at 312.9 yards, will make his PGA Tour debut at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January.

Betancourt is confident his pupil has the talent to eventually be among “the top 20 in the world.”

Colombian Camilo Villegas is glad Vegas will be joining the ranks of Latin Americans on the Tour.

“I played with him in a couple of South American tournaments, and the one I remember the most is the last one I played in Colombia,” Villegas said during last week’s Australian Masters. “He’s a strong kid who hits it far. It’s nice to see him play good this year and get his card.

“I’ve always said, ‘I don’t want to be the only Colombian on tour, and we need more South Americans on tour.’ Adding Jhonattan is nice. He’s a great kid to have on tour.”

In Venezuela, golf fans are hoping the sport will get a boost from Vegas’ emergence in a country where baseball has long been the No. 1 sport and Chavez’s threats have halted construction of new courses.

The course shutdowns by the government – most recently on Margarita Island after Chavez ordered a hotel expropriated – have hindered efforts to expand the sport in country, said Juan Nutt, president of the PGA of Venezuela.

He’s hoping Vegas can help turn that around.

“When Jhonattan is playing in next year’s Tour and he goes on television, there are going to be many more followers of golf in this country, even if they aren’t golfers,” Nutt said. “A lot more attention is going to be paid to a sport that traditionally hasn’t been followed much in this country.”

Getty Images

Country singer Owen shoots 86 in debut

By Will GrayMay 24, 2018, 7:51 pm

Country music star Jake Owen struggled in his Tour debut, shooting a 14-over 86 in the opening round of the Nashville Golf Open.

Owen, who played as a 1 handicap earlier this year while teaming with Jordan Spieth at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, put three balls out of bounds over his first nine holes, including two en route to a quadruple-bogey 9 on the par-5 18th hole. After making the turn in 46, Owen came home in 40 without making a single birdie.

Owen is playing as an amateur on an unrestricted sponsor exemption, the same type used by NBA superstar Steph Curry on the Tour last year and by former NFL quarterback Tony Romo this year on the PGA Tour. Curry missed the cut after rounds of 74-74 at the Ellie Mae Classic, while Romo shot 77-82 at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship.

Full-field scores from the Nashville Golf Open

Owen tallied nine pars, six bogeys, two doubles and a quad in his opener and was the only player from the morning wave who failed to break 80. The closest player to him in the standings was two-time major champ Angel Cabrera, who opened with a 79.

While Owen struggled against a field full of professionals, he took the setback in stride and even took to Twitter in the middle of his round to fire back at some of his online critics:

Getty Images

New putter propels Hoffman to Fort Worth lead

By Will GrayMay 24, 2018, 7:30 pm

After sitting at home last week, Charley Hoffman decided it was time for a change.

The veteran estimated that he has been using the same version of a Scotty Cameron putter for the last five years, but heading into this week's Fort Worth Invitational he wanted to shake things up.

"I had an idea on Sunday literally coming out here that I wanted to have a little more weight in my putter," Hoffman told reporters. "I went with one that was sort of in my bag of putters at home that I could add some weight here."

The swap provided immediate results, as Hoffman opened with a 7-under 63 while picking up more than two strokes over the field on the greens to take a one-shot lead over Emiliano Grillo, Jhonattan Vegas and Andrew Putnam. It was an all-around effort Thursday for Hoffman, as he missed only two greens in regulation and never faced a par putt longer than 5 feet.

"I was able to knock in some mid-range putts and played very solid," Hoffman said. "It was a nice, very stress-free round. It was fun to play."

Full-field scores from the Fort Worth Invitational

Fort Worth Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

Hoffman had one of the best seasons of his career in 2017, capping it with a Presidents Cup appearance and a runner-up finish at the Hero World Challenge in December. While he has made nine cuts in 12 starts this year, his T-12 finish at the Masters remains his best result as he has struggled to turn top-20s into opportunities to contend.

Hoffman is making his seventh straight appearance at Colonial, where he tied for 10th in 2015. But he had never shot better than 65 before Thursday, when his decision to switch to a heavier Scotty Cameron model seemingly put a magnet on the bottom of the cup.

"Putting is a fickle part of the game," he said. "So hopefully the good mojo continues."

Getty Images

McIlroy shoots 67, two off BMW PGA lead

By Associated PressMay 24, 2018, 6:56 pm

VIRGINIA WATER, England – Rory McIlroy walked off the 18th green in disgruntled fashion, shaking his head and looking down at the ground.

Shooting a 5-under 67 at Wentworth can rarely have felt so unsatisfactory.

The four-time major winner pushed his approach shot from the middle of the fairway into the overhanging trees at the par-5 last, saw his chip clip the flag pole, then missed a 3-foot putt for birdie for a disappointing end to his first round at the BMW PGA Championship on Thursday.

McIlroy also missed out on a birdie on the par-5 17th, too. Hence his unhappiness immediately after his round, although he was only two shots off the lead held by Lucas Bjerregaard (65).

Full-field scores from the BMW PGA Championship

''Walking off the 16th green and going to No. 17 at 5 under par, it was good after being 1 over after three (holes),'' McIlroy said, before diverting away from revisiting the end of his round.

''I played really well, gave myself plenty of chances, drove it well, for the most part hit my irons a lot better than I have done, so it was nice to get off to a good start.''

McIlroy is playing the European Tour's flagship event for the first time since 2015. He won it in 2014, the year he won The Open and the PGA Championship – his most recent major victories.

After bogeying No. 3, the former top-ranked McIlroy reeled off seven birdies in 13 holes and later said the greens were in the best condition he'd seen them.

Bjerregaard, whose only win came in Portugal last year, made seven birdies in a bogey-free round – his last at No. 18 giving him the outright lead over South Africans Dean Burmester and Darren Fichardt.

Burmester earlier played his last eight holes in 6 under par – including making eagle at the 15th – to draw level with compatriot Fichardt, who was also bogey-free.

Kiradech Aphibarnrat finished 7-6 on the two par 5s to drop from the outright lead at the time to 4 under.

Getty Images

Stricker opens with 65 at Colonial despite back pain

By Will GrayMay 24, 2018, 6:45 pm

After four holes of the Fort Worth Invitational, things were looking bleak for Steve Stricker.

The ageless veteran was already 1 over when he tweaked his back playing his approach to No. 13, his fourth hole of the day at Colonial Country Club. He ended up making another bogey, but at that point his score took a backseat to the health of his ailing back.

"I tried to hit a pretty solid 6-iron and got right into the impact area, and actually felt my lower back crack right where I had surgery back in 2014, pretty much right on the spot," Stricker told reporters. "Tried to walk to the green and that wasn't going so well. Kind of tightened up on me. I thought I was going to have to stop and just stand there for a minute, which I did a couple of times. It didn't look or feel very good for a while."

Slowly but surely, Stricker's back began to loosen up, and with it came a turnaround on the scorecard. Stricker had a four-hole stretch in the middle of his round that he played in 5 under, highlighted by a hole-out from the greenside bunker for eagle on the par-5 first hole. Despite the rocky start, he ended up shooting a 5-under 65 to sit two shots off the early pace set by Charley Hoffman.

Full-field scores from the Fort Worth Invitational

Fort Worth Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

"I just kept plodding along," Stricker said. "I knew there were some birdie holes out here if you can get it in the fairway. There are some short irons."

Stricker had a spot in one of the marquee early-round groups, but his score bettered both Jordan Spieth's 1-under 69 and defending champ Kevin Kisner's 2-over 72. Stricker told reporters that he planned to get his back checked after the round.

Stricker continues to straddle both the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions while crafting a unique schedule, and his appearance this week in Fort Worth came at the expense of skipping the Senior PGA Championnship, a major on the over-50 circuit. But Stricker won at Colonial in 2009 and has now played four straight years on what he described as one of his favorite courses.

"I like to play here. I know I'm going to play John Deere, another favorite tournament of mine, and FedEx St. Jude looks like I am going to try to play in a couple weeks, try to get in the U.S. Open," Stricker said. "So it's just kind of picking them as I go, and seeing where I want to go and seeing what feels good to me at the time."