Friday, October 3, 2008
Camilo Villegas On The Streets Of Medellin
Camilo Villegas has proudly stamped his homeland's colors on his bag.
There's a young boy hanging around the streets of Medellin, Colombia. He's got a well-used soccer ball tucked under his arm and he wears the blue jersey of the revered 2001 national team that won the Copa America. He's always wanted to grow up to be like Carlos Valderrama, captain of three World Cup teams.
Now he wants to be The Spider-Man.
Camilo Villegas has grown into a national hero in his home country. When he returned home after winning the BMW Championship last month, word leaked out to the local media about his arrival and they were waiting for him at the airport. Perhaps it was Vice President Francisco Santos who told them; he called Villegas to offer his congratulations.
Winning a PGA TOUR event is hardly big news to the local folks if you're Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson; they seemingly do it all the time. But it was almost parade-worthy for the people in Colombia. Villegas said his cell phone was full of congratulatory messages from his buddies in Bogota and his amigos in Arauca.
"To everyone back home, have fun with it like I did," Villegas said. "I'm just trying to represent my county as good as I can."
In a very short time period, Villegas has not only become one of the PGA TOUR's young poster boys, he's become a national icon, thanks to his BMW Championship win and his win at THE TOUR Championship presented by Coca-Cola in his next start. As a result, he's morphed into an athlete that youngsters in his country want to emulate.
How long will it be until the kids in Colombia want to wear the Villegas uniform: Cobra hat, white pants, big belt buck and a form-fitting shirt. Why dress like Tiger when you can be styling like Camilo? Por que?
Much as America could not have picked a better model than Tiger Woods to serve up to the kiddies, it would be difficult for Colombia to find a better example than Villegas. He's seemingly done everything the right way.
Making the move to America wasn't easy for Villegas. He arrived at the University of Florida with limited vocabulary skills, both written and oral. At first he tried to hide his inefficiencies by not talking, but soon learned that people were willing to help him learn if he tried. He buried himself in his school books, reading and studying for hours, and was determined to succeed academically. The method must have worked: Villegas graduated from Florida with a 3.8 grade-point average.
Villegas now approaches his golf game the same way. He doesn't like to make drastic swing changes or fixes. He prefers the slow approach. Baby steps, he calls them.
Just like he couldn't learn English in a week, he knew it would take time to become a winner on the PGA TOUR.
He came close, agonizingly so, his first two full years on TOUR when he was runner-up three times. Villegas finally broke through this year in the third leg of the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup, when he held off Anthony Kim to win the BMW Championship. He followed that up last week in Atlanta with a playoff victory over Sergio Garcia in THE TOUR Championship.
Now there must surely be Spider-mania sweeping the country.
And don't think for a minute that Villegas minds. He likes the attention, especially from the female fans who fawn over his long hair and tight britches. But he's got the bigger picture figured out better at age 26 than many guys twice his age.
He understands the value of hard work. Golf isn't a game that rewards the lazy. Sure, natural ability is required, but true greatness is found on the practice ground, not the locker room. Villegas has never been afraid of working hard.
He understands the obligation to give back and has attached himself to a foundation called MOMO, which takes kids off the streets and offers training and hope. They get some education and something to eat. They learn, which he realizes is the key to the program's success.
Villegas is seriously interested in spreading the game in his country. He says the people there are still learning about golf. One of his goals is to popularize the sport and bring it to the masses.
That won't be easy. A 2003 report said there were 61.1 million golfers worldwide. Of that number, only a million can be found in South America. The number in Colombia is only a small portion of that, a tiny number for the 26th largest country in the world.
The long odds only multiply the potential impact Villegas can have on the sport in his homeland. It probably won't be long until he sponsors his own tournament.
In the meantime, he's just enjoying the ride.
"It's fun to hear guys that have never watched a tournament, have never held a golf ball in their hand, to be talking about golf, to be watching a little golf, and to be rooting for -- in this case me, which is a guy that's out here trying to represent them as good as I can," Villegas said.
And it would be impossible to find a better ambassador.
Stan Awtry is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM.
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