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Stalking the Tiger

Camilo Villegas's Early Success on the 2006 PGA Tour is Raising the Inevitable Question—Can He Challenge the World's No. 1 Golfer?
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

It's late on Friday afternoon at the 2006 Ford Championship in Miami and the Doral Blue Monster course is abuzz. Tiger Woods is out there, but it's not about him. Phil Mickelson is playing, too, but it's not about him. It's not about Ernie Els or Sergio Garcia or Vijay Singh.

Eddie Carbone, the executive tournament director, knew what the buzz was about. He had been sensing it for weeks. He had gotten e-mails and phone calls asking if a certain player would be in the field. He and his staff had been assuring people that, yes, this player would definitely be teeing it up. As Carbone stood outside the tournament office on Friday afternoon, a thunderous roar rolled across the Blue Monster. Carbone knew it wasn't for Tiger or Phil or Ernie or Sergio or Vijay.

He knew it could be for only one player: Camilo. Camilo? Yes, Camilo. Camilo Villegas. The newest, hottest player on the PGA Tour.

"He's going to be an international superstar," says Carbone, who's seen a lot of superstars. "He's going to reach out to the Spanish-speaking people around the world. Everybody's going to know who this kid is. He's special."

The sunlight will be fading soon in the atrium of a Houston airport hotel. A photographer is arranging a photo shoot of Villegas to catch the optimum light on his caramel skin and his glowing long tresses. Five young women in their early 20s pass by, most likely on their way to a workout room or a jog. They see Villegas changing shirts, his sculpted upper torso rippling, and they can't take their eyes off him. They have no idea who he is. They have no idea that he is the best golfer from Colombia, a country known for coffee and Pulitzer Prize—winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but other, less savory products, too. They have no idea that he was a four-time All-American player at the University of Florida. They have no idea that he is off to a brilliant start on his rookie year on the PGA Tour. They do know, however, that he has something special, because they are staring at him with twisted necks even as they go out the door. They know he has "it."

What is this "it?" As a PGA Tour player, Villegas has power, touch, focus and imagination. As a personality, he has looks, smarts, grace and magnetism. People come to watch him play golf. People come to watch him be Camilo.

"His impact on our tournament was sensational," says Carbone. "I had people from Colombia e-mailing, calling, wanting to make sure that he was in the field because they wanted to come up from Colombia to watch him play. We have such an extensive Latin community in Miami. Of course, we have a large Cuban population, but lots of people from South America, too. Colombians, Venezuelans, Brazilians. They caught wind of this kid. It was incredible."

Villegas caught lightning in a bottle the final day of the Ford Championship. Playing before an enormous and passionate gallery made up largely of Latinos, Villegas was pressing leader Tiger Woods before an errant drive and three putts at the 18th led to a double bogey and a tie for second place. That he did not win the tournament meant little. That he did win such a huge following meant everything.

"I told my caddie standing on the 18th green that it was the most awesome week I ever had," says Villegas, relaxed and confident on a hotel couch in his J. Lindeberg shirt and his J. Lindeberg jeans. "Playing good golf at the right place at the right time in front of the right people. I don't have any idea how many people out there had no clue as to what is a par, birdie, putting green. It was golf with a soccer crowd. You could see all the Colombian flags. People yelling and screaming for me. So I clapped my hands for them."

Johan Lindeberg saw the "it" in Camilo Villegas nearly three years ago as he was surfing the Internet. Lindeberg, the creative director of the Swedish fashion company J. Lindeberg and a passionate golfer, came across Villegas as a college player at the University of Florida, and from those first Internet pictures he thought he discerned a quality about him that was undeniably attractive. Two years later, when he met Villegas after he had turned pro, when his company had him under contract to wear his golf clothing and the rest of his collection, Lindeberg knew he was right.

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