Questions for ... Jhonny Vegas
Golf isn't big in Venezuela. Who was your mentor?
Franci Betancourt, my golf teacher. We worked together from the time I was 13 or 14, somewhere around there. Franci moved to Houston in 2000, and I moved in with his family in 2002. And then when I got here I met Kevin Kirk, my other golf teacher.
What was the toughest part about coming to America at the age of 17?
Leaving family and friends. I moved after I tied for sixth place at the 2002 Callaway Junior World at Torrey Pines. It was only the second time I'd ever been to America. The first time was the 2001 Orange Bowl in Miami. I didn't play great. But I came to San Diego and played well and things started to open up.
How much English did you speak when you got here?
Nothing at all. I came to Houston a week before my 18th birthday speaking no English, and it took me a year and a half of English classes to really get it enough to go to school. Franci and his wife, Alba, and [their son] Gustavo told me to come try it here, and living with them made it kind of a family feeling, which was good. I was practicing golf and going to a community college and learning English. There were tough moments, but they made me who I am.
How important was it for you that your parents, Carlos and Maritza, were there for your victory this year at the Bob Hope?
Golf is their passion, especially my dad's. To have them here to experience that first win couldn't be any better. They were extremely excited. My mom was crying.
So everything's gone according to plan, winning in just your fifth Tour start? Not really. I came out just to establish myself and keep improving every week. To jump into the winner's circle, it was crazy, but I've been working on this for a long, long time and I was ready.
What misunderstandings do Americans have about Venezuela?
It's a great country, a really pretty country. I guess most Americans are afraid to leave the United States; that's something I've experienced here. I suppose once you've lived here all your life it's tough to leave, but Venezuela has lots of great things to do, all kinds of weather, beach, mountains, desert.
Did you ever play baseball?
I played third base. I thought I was pretty decent at it, but I was only 8 or 9, playing with 13- and 14-year-olds. I hit okay, nothing great. As I kept growing people started wondering, why don't you play baseball? But I was born with a love for golf, and here I am. Being in Texas, I follow the Rangers.
You're about 6'2", 225. You played golf at Texas, but did anybody ever try to recruit you for football?
[Laughs] I talked to Mack Brown, the head coach, and he said, 'You should be my tight end.' It was great there. I had a fun time.
Is it true that you grew up playing golf with sticks and rocks?
Rocks, plastic balls, cans, whatever I could find. It wasn't until I got a little older that I got some real clubs and started playing. I think I was 5 or 6 years old.
Was your dad a caddie?
No, no. My dad only worked as a caddie for a short time, from like the time I was 10 to 15 years old maybe. We lived near a golf course in Caracas, and going over there to pick range balls or caddie was a way to make money. He owned a catering business. He's a good cook, but my mom is the cook at home.
Is it just you? No fiancÃ©e or girlfriend?
It's just me in Houston. I have a girlfriend back in Venezuela. We've been going out for a year and a half. Everything's been going pretty good. The Woodlands Country Club in Houston made me an honorary member even before I won.
Is it true that Hugo Chavez called you after the Hope, but you didn't pick up because you didn't recognize the number?
There were so many people calling, I don't really know. I didn't recognize the number.
Do you think your win will help change his perception of golf, from the sport of the rich to a sport that's open and available to all?
I hope so. The only thing I can do is try to represent my country and hope some people will start playing. There are good players, and they need some support from our country. Once they get that they will be great players.
Does winning so early decrease or increase the pressure on you?
It's a little bit of both. You don't have to worry about making cuts and keeping your card, but that said, the expectations get a little higher now. You always want to do better.
Have you been recognized in airports and other places?
I have. It's a little strange right now.