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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

(continued from page 1)

"I am always studying golf and I thought he was the best-looking golfer ever," says Lindeberg. "His arms, his eyes, his looks. To me, he was the new Marlon Brando. He has that intensity of charisma, of strength, that Brando persona. To me, he has the most unique look as a golfer since Arnold Palmer. Tiger Woods operates on a completely different level in the world, no doubt. But Camilo has tremendous international appeal."

So, is Camilo Villegas the next Tiger Woods or the next Marlon Brando? Does he have 10 major championships in his game, does he have a remake of On the Waterfront in his future? Tough acts to follow, to be sure. But be sure of one thing: Villegas wants to make his own place in the world of golf and he seems to have the tools—the body and the brain—to make very good things happen. Through this past April he had finished second twice and made an extremely impressive third-place showing in the Players Championship. He had won more than $1.2 million, already ensuring that he would finish in the top 125 on the money list and hold his PGA Tour card for 2007.

Now comes the true test, whether Villegas can become a winner on the PGA Tour, whether he can become an elite player, whether he can become a contender for the crown currently held by Woods and once held by Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Most players are pretenders to that kingdom. Sergio Garcia is a winner, but not a major winner. Greg Norman, for all the expectation and excitement that swirled around his career, never quite wore the royal robes despite winning two British Opens. Villegas has a ways to go on results, even if he is just arriving as a personality.

The journey of 24-year-old Camilo Villegas to the PGA Tour began in the unlikely city of Medellín, Colombia. The son of architects Fernando and Luz Marina Villegas, the young boy was attracted to the popular sports of the country—soccer, biking and squash. His father had been a well-rounded athlete who played soccer and tennis and rode motorcycles competitively. At 35, Fernando decided to take up golf and joined Campestre de Medellín, one of four clubs with golf courses in the city of nearly two million in the northwest part of the country. Medellín is known as the Land of the Eternal Spring and the Capital of Flowers and is a principal manufacturing center. But it is also widely known as the center of the Colombia drug cartels. That is a reputation that Villegas would like to erase through the game of golf.

"If I play good golf and people say, 'Hey, he's from Colombia and he's doing something positive,' I think that will help with what people think of Colombia…. It's a pretty country with people who are passionate and will make you feel at home."

When Camilo was seven, Fernando took his son to the Campestre de Medellín. The boy hit a few balls, then a few more, and soon knew that he had found the sport he wanted to play. "Soccer was not a sport I really loved," says Villegas. "I really enjoyed biking and I liked playing squash. But I really loved golf. Golf was the one that I really wanted to do better, the one I worked the hardest on, the one I had the most passion about. There was something about it I really enjoyed. I knew golf was the one I wanted to do special things with."

Under the tutelage of the club pro, Rogelio Gonzalez, and the support of the Federación Colombiana de Golf, Villegas became one of the country's best players by the age of 13. "One of the best things about playing golf in Colombia is that if you are a good one, you get a lot of opportunities to represent your country," says Villegas. "Being the third best player in Colombia is a lot easier than being the third best player in the United States. So if you are third best you get a lot of opportunities." His résumé included two South American junior championships, a victory at the Colombian Open as an amateur and three appearances in the World Amateur.

Villegas was doing special things without the benefit of a world-renowned swing coach, a sports psychologist or a personal trainer. At an early age he was focused and mature. His parents never pushed him to play golf, nor did they push him to open a schoolbook. But they did tell him that whatever he was doing, he should dedicate himself to it and give it his best. He has made that advice his credo and it is at the center of his present success. In that regard, he could be the equivalent of Tiger Woods, whose late father, Earl, and mother, Kultida, took a similar approach in raising their son.

As Woods was starting his fourth season on the PGA Tour in 1999, Villegas was coming to America and making a lasting impression. He finished fifth in the World Junior Championships in San Diego, lost in the final of the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship in York, Pennsylvania, to Hunter Mahan (now a fellow PGA Tour player) and won the Orange Bowl tournament in Coral Gables, Florida. The U.S. Junior is a key tournament in the college recruiting rotation. Among the more than 80 college coaches there that year was Buddy Alexander, leader of the University of Florida's highly successful golf program. Alexander already had a Colombian player on his team, Camilo Benedetti, who had gone to high school in Fort Lauderdale his sophomore year as an exchange student. Now Alexander and a legion of coaches were watching Villegas establish himself as a blue-chip prospect. "Let's say he drove up the price by his performance there [at the Juniors]," says the Florida coach.

The University of Florida is where Villegas wanted to go. With Benedetti already at the school, with Alexander as one of the premier college coaches, with the team highly competitive on a national basis, Villegas set his heart on becoming a Gator. He was going to play with the best, and he was going to get a degree. As much as he loved golf, he also knew there were no guarantees that a rich professional career was in his future.

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