Tour and News

Camilo Villegas: Here comes the Spider-Man

Photo: Brian Smith

Going low: The "Spider-Man" pose Villegas uses to read greens has become his signature.

On Friday night of this year's U.S. Open, Camilo Villegas' mother, Luz Marina, called from Colombia to give her son a pat on the back. He'd spent two grueling days trading roundhouse rights with Oakmont Country Club, becoming the first Colombian to make a cut in a major. He stood 10 strokes off the lead.

"Congratulations, you did it!" she said.

"Are you [expletive] kidding me?" he replied. "I'm not here to make the cut. I'm here to win the thing, not finish 20th."

Oh, and tell Dad Happy Father's Day.

For the record, Villegas (pronounced "Bee-JAY-gus"), 25, loves his parents, Fernando and Luz Marina, the middle-class couple who raised their two sons in Colombia's mountainous, coffee-rich Aburra region. After all, they introduced their boys to golf in the soccer-mad country, which has only 50 courses. "It's just that I'm very competitive," he says three months later, his fluent English dipped in a Spanish accent. He sits in the golf course clubhouse at his alma mater, the University of Florida, Gainesville, on a stormy September afternoon. Rain rinses the window behind him. "It annoys me a little when people try to be positive when I don't play my best. I play to win. I'm like that. I'm like any other player. I'm never happy."

If any golfer has the right to be happy, it's the big-hitting, pin-hunting, four-time All- American from Medellin, Colombia, who's bagged 11 top-10s and $3.8 million in prize money in two seasons on Tour. As Villegas approaches year three, he says he's ready to win. He's ready to validate the adulation (he was voted one of People magazine's hottest bachelors), the groupies (they trail him like ducklings), the snug J.Lindeberg duds (if you wear pants of Robin's-egg blue, you'd better be good), and laurels from the likes of Johnny Miller, who paid the kid the ultimate on-air compliment: "He has all the shots. He reminds me of me."

So Villegas has the clothes, the girls, the charm. All he needs now is a win.

"I'm very competitive, and I want to win," he says. He leans forward and slides his callused hands on the table. In person, he resembles a middleweight boxer: 5'9", 160 tightly wound pounds, python biceps, ribs poking through his white T-shirt. Like Tiger Woods before him, Villegas has gone from scrawny to brawny, packing on 20-plus pounds of muscle. Unlike Woods, he has yet to become a complete player. And he knows it. "People talk about my putting, but I need to get better in many areas," says Villegas, who ranked no higher than 14th in any of 53 statistical Tour categories in 2007 (through Oct. 7). "This year, I worked hard to get better, and I'll keep working hard, keep preparing. I'm not playing to finish second or 10th. I hope [winning] happens quick, but you can't force it. I'm doing things my way, on my timetable."

Whether it's marathon weight-lifting sessions or arranging his clothes, Villegas has always done things his way, says his younger brother Manny, 22, a senior on the Florida golf team. "I call him 'Grandpa,' because he's very organized. Growing up, he'd get on me, tell me to put things away, like an old man. He numbers his socks. If he buys 10 pairs of white socks, he'll number each sock 1 to 10, because he wants the 1s with the 1s, the 2s with the 2s. He can't let a 7 get mixed up with a 3. He hangs his shirts in color-coordinated rows, with the hangers in the same directions. When he cooks dinner, he has to clean the pan before he eats what he cooks. [Laughs] He's weird like that."

"Grandpa" has a side that ranges from playful to mischievous. He tosses packets of Juan Valdez coffee to fans. When he and Manny were teammates at Florida, the pair got busted late one night while mining some 2,000 balls from a drained golf course lake, planning to sell them for a tidy profit. (Villegas was a business major, with a 3.78 GPA.) His college coach Buddy Alexander recalls the way his meal ticket liked to hop on his chopper and pop a wheelie, Evel Knievel-style, after practice. "I'd be wetting my pants watching my star player peel off on one wheel all the way down the street until he was out of sight," Alexander says. "He likes to show off."

Villegas had a chance to show off when he and Woods were paired together at the BMW Championship in September. Villegas shot 71 to Woods's 65, but the experience confirmed something that he'd always felt in his secret heart. He doesn't fear Tiger. Which means he doesn't fear anyone.

"Fear is not a word that describes what I feel when I step out on a tee with Tiger," Villegas says. "He's the best player in the world. But it's more of a challenge. That's the word. Challenge. I love that challenge. I love that stage. To play with Tiger, and to see the circus that surrounds you, it makes me focus on my game. It's intense. A different atmosphere. I learned from him. I saw the way he plays the course exactly as he planned, shot after shot. I hope to play more [with him] on weekends. That means I'm doing pretty good."

Then he's asked a question — Are you good enough to be No. 1? — which, full disclosure, was posed to elicit an answer that might make a juicy coverline. Something like: Camilo to Tiger: "Your ass is grass!" No dice.

"Am I good enough to be No. 1? Sure, but who's gonna break Tiger's legs? [Laughs] I want to be the best. Can I? Oh, believe me, I will be trying. Hard. You grow up in Colombia, and everything is limited. Then, I come here, and you have everything. A trainer, nutritionist, coach. I'm very lucky. Many doors open, and I have a path to take. I can take the good, positive path, or the lazy path. I try to take every challenge, in the gym, nutrition, practice, and then see what happens."

What happened in 2007 was a nice year that saw several fat paychecks but only one brush with victory — a four-man playoff at the Honda Classic, in March, won by Mark Wilson. Few question Villegas' talent. His simple, explosive swing sends balls soaring off his clubface like bottle rockets. But power doesn't help you on the greens, and in 2007 Villegas ranked 77th and 111th in putting average and putts-per-round, respectively. Besides, the Tour is littered with Next Big Things who wind up on milk cartons: Ricky Barnes, Hank Kuehne, Ty Tryon. "To win, I need to get better, to keep practicing, to maybe get a little lucky. I need more chances. I want that chance."

It's his apparent comfort in the spotlight that separates Villegas from other pros, says CBS commentator David Feherty, who's spent time with Villegas on the set of their Cobra commercials.

"Sergio will win a major, but Camilo might just get there first," Feherty says. "He has that Latin bravado that Seve had, he has the swing, and he wants to be there in the big moments. He welcomes it. He's not content to just make a few million and get laid, which describes most players out there. He's got that ego you need to be great. The player he reminds me of most is Tiger. They both have this hunger. Of course, Camilo doesn't have to deal with what Tiger does. Camilo's biggest worry is, 'Hmm, I think I'll take the one with the big cans.'"

Villegas' college coach isn't ready to send his former charge to the World Golf Hall of Fame just yet. But he compares Villegas favorably to some fellow Gators who've made noise on Tour, including Chris DiMarco. "Camilo is capable of being a top-10 player," says Alexander, 54, now in his 21st year at Florida. "He's not the best putter. He's not the best driver. He's not the best short-iron player. What sets him apart is that everything he does has a purpose, a focus. He has balance. He was skinny, 140 pounds, when he arrived here, so he lived in the weight room, packed on all that muscle. But he took care of all areas in his life: school, golf, girls. He knows who he is, and he's utterly comfortable in his own skin. Will he be comfortable with the lead on the 16th tee on Sunday? We don't know yet. I guarantee you, though: He wants to be there. He won a lot in college. He's a killer. Behind that playful kid there's a son of a bitch who will take a knife, carve your heart out and show it to you on the first tee."

If his grand plan to grab golf by the hair and drag it back to his cave falls through, Villegas would make a great White House press secretary. At times his lips are tighter than a coach-class seat. While he doesn't have Tiger's resume, Villegas already displays a Woodsian ability to sidestep questions.

What's Tiger like? Any trash-talking between you two?

"We joke and mess around. He's a good guy, with a good sense of humor."

Rumor has it, when Tiger whomped a yellow-clad Garcia at the '06 British Open, he texted a friend, "I just bludgeoned Tweety Bird." He didn't needle you some?

"We have thick skins. It's great to play with him. It's all business out there."

You like to take risks on the course. What's the biggest risk you've taken in life?

"Growing up in Colombia, I did some crazy things." Long pause. "But no, it was fun being a kid and growing up."

Being a kid is fun — got it. OK, what's the 17th biggest risk you've ever taken?

"I like going fast. I like motorcycles."

What kind of motorcycles?

"None. I don't have any."

But you just said you like motorcycles.

"OK, I do have one." Sly grin. "The only thing I can say is, it's more for my dad than for me."

Crack!

A bolt of sheet lightning splits the Florida sky. Villegas whips his head around, revealing the wide-eyed kid behind the well-rehearsed Tour pro. "Whoa, did you hear that?! That was sooo cool!"

A steady rain streaks the window. The storm seems to have electrified Villegas, who soon grows more teasing, playful. The kid behind the killer comes out, and the subject turns to what keeps him up nights. "I have crazy dreams," he says. "There's one I have where I'm trying to make it to the first tee, but I'm late, late. I can't get there in time. I wake up at 4 a.m., and when I do, it's a big relief. What's it about? I'm not too sure. I guess, don't be late!"

Anyone who's ever dreamed of missing the Big Exam knows it's about preparation. Villegas doesn't fear Tiger, or hidden pins, or double bogeys. He only fears being unprepared, and he'll trade J.Lindeberg for JC Penney before he lets that happen. "That's an area where you can't give advantage to other players. I can't control what they do, but in preparation, I can be No. 1. Five years from now, I hope I've won tournaments and majors. But I can't control that. All I control is me, my attitude, and how I prepare. How soon will I win? I don't know. But believe me: I'll be trying. Hard."

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