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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 2)

"If I had stayed in Colombia, it was going to have to be golf or it was going to have to be academics," says Villegas. "Coming to the States, it was nice to be able to combine both, something I always wanted. Golf is a tough sport; there are so many good competitors out there, so you never know what can happen. I have a passion for the sport, but I had to have a backup in case it didn't work out. So I had to get my degree." (Villegas would major in business administration, graduating with a 3.78 GPA.)

The player that Buddy Alexander had recruited had a game based on finesse and strategy. The 5-foot-9, 139-pound freshman was one of the smallest players on the team in 2000, one of the shortest off the tee. Villegas wanted to change all that and so did Alexander. "He didn't really generate enough clubhead speed," says Alexander. "We put him on a program to make him stronger. Lifting weights, nutrition. He took it to a level that no had ever done before."

Eventually, Villegas would get up to 160 pounds of lithe, rippling muscle, enough to propel him into the top 10 in driving distance on the PGA Tour. He would win eight tournaments in college, breaking the school's record held by PGA Tour player Chris DiMarco. His first two years, he was a first-team All-American. He won two tournaments his junior year, but somehow was voted only to the third team. He returned to the first team his senior year in 2004. It was sometime during his sophomore year that he started thinking that a professional golf career might be possible. He was hitting the ball far, sometimes farther than anyone else on the team. His putting and his wedge games were improving He was a consummate practice-range rat who found his success, as they say, in the dirt (and in the weight room). "He is as disciplined and dedicated a player as I've ever had," says Alexander. "He does things the way you can only hope to teach them."

NBC television analyst and former Gator Gary Koch closely watched Villegas's progress. "I played with him on Gator Golf Day when he was a freshman and he really was a skinny little kid," says Koch. "But you could just sense there was a presence about him, the way he carried himself. He was very polite and it was obvious that he was brought up very well. You just thought he had to do some great things."

When Villegas left Florida in 2004, he turned pro. IMG, the mega-sports agency that built its reputation on Arnold Palmer and represents Woods and many of the world's leading players, had been first in line for several years to sign him up. The minders at IMG knew that Villegas—like Palmer and Woods before him—had that "it" factor, a charisma quotient that transcended the game. "We like to have people who are a little different," says IMG senior vice president Clarke Jones. "Right when you meet him you realize he's got something. You realize how organized and dedicated he is. He was a great student, very diligent, very mature. And he's got that Latin flair."

His first big professional event was the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. Villegas had gone through two stages of qualifying to earn his spot. College golf is played on a very high level, but generally in front of more trees than spectators. Now Villegas was getting to see what the big time was all about, and it agreed with him. "I missed the cut, but it gave me a taste for the life out there," says Villegas. "It showed me I could play golf in front of people, put on a show, and I like that people were having fun with it. It made all the hard work I had put in worth it."

Through IMG's stumping and Villegas's accomplishments, and through his growing "it" factor, he was able to get sponsor invitations into seven PGA Tour events in 2004, the maximum allowed to any player. When he finished in a tie for seventh at the B.C. Open, that allowed him to play the next week. Altogether he played in 10 PGA events that season. But because it's almost impossible to win enough money in such a few number of events, it's difficult to gain top-125 money-list status, which guarantees a spot on the Tour for the following season.

Because he was not a Tour member, Villegas did not gain an entry to the Nationwide Tour—golf's top level below the PGA Tour—for the following year. He had to go through the full three stages of Tour qualifying to get a card. At the second stage, he missed. At that point he had no status anywhere, though being an IMG client conveys status in its own right. It helped him get into events on the Australasian Tour at the end of 2004; he finished in the top 60 on that money list, enough to gain tour status there. He had a home base, if he needed it.

"In 2005, I knew I was going to get some sponsors exemptions into PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour events," says Villegas. "I got a sponsor exemption into the first Nationwide Tour event of the season in Panama and finished second. I thought to myself, This is going to be a good way to get onto the PGA Tour." (The top 20 money winners on the Nationwide Tour, plus ties, gain provisional status to the PGA Tour. Villegas finished 13th.)

One of the sponsor exemptions that Villegas received in 2005 was to the Ford Championship at Doral. Eddie Carbone had been aware of Villegas's achievements at the University of Florida. He saw that "it" something in Villegas and had him play on the media day for the Ford Championship that January. "You could really tell that this kid had something special," says Carbone. "He's the most gracious and personable guy. I loved the way he interacted with everyone. He has a good appreciation of what it takes to be a complete pro, how he needs to interact with the sponsors and the fans."


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