When the soldiers pointed their machine guns at us, I knew we had finally gone too far.
It was a sticky December morning in 2011, near the end of a weeklong odyssey during which I followed Jhonattan Vegas home to Venezuela for the first time since he had become a PGA Tour winner. The trip was nearly a year in the making, owing to the fraught politics of his homeland and the inconvenient fact that Vegas’s father, Carlos, had long been treated as an enemy of the state for once signing a recall petition against Venezuela’s half-mad dictator, Hugo Chavez. Once there, we wanted a powerful image of Jhonny that conveyed sense of place. Venezuela produces so much oil and gas that at times the excess is simply burned off. We heard the fires were blazing at a factory outside of JV’s hometown of Maturin, so we piled into a couple of cars: Jhonny and a few of his pals; his agent, Bobby Kreusler; my ace translator, Luis Fernando Llosa (who was so invaluable he should’ve gotten a co-byline on the story); and photographer Meridith Kohut. We drove way out into the countryside and finally came upon the awe-inspiring fires, with plumes 30 to 40 feet tall. We could feel their heat from thousands of feet away. We pulled both cars hard against a fence; Jhonny stood on the roof of one and Meridith on the roof of the other so we could get the shot.
All of this commotion on the edge of a government installation surely looked a little suspicious, and within minutes three trucks full of soldiers roared up. There was a lot of shouting and gesticulating with the guns. It was the only time in more than two decades on the golf beat I’ve ever been in danger of getting shot. Jhonny was typically unflappable and very coolly talked our way out of the predicament, maybe the clutchest save of his career.
I’ve been thinking about that trip a lot lately, and not just because Jhonny has been all over the leader boards in L.A. and Palm Beach Gardens. Over the holidays I read an especially depressing story in the New Yorker about Venezuela’s descent into chaos and possible famine. When we were there in 2011 the country was already headed toward an economic implosion; on my first evening a woman slipped into my hotel room with a briefcase full of Bolivares, which I swapped for my American money because the government exchange rate was absurdly high and a black market in currency was already thriving.
I saw Jhonny at Torrey Pines earlier this year and we laughed about the trip, as we always do. But a heaviness came over him when I asked about Venezuela today: “It’s bad, man. Very bad. I don’t know when I’ll get back there again.” He didn’t say if, but I sensed it was on the tip of his tongue.
Our trip remains indelible for so many reasons. We started in Caracas, so Jhonny could throw out the first-pitch in the winter baseball league’s all-star game. It was one of the most raucous sporting events I’ve attended, and the arepas might be my favorite ballpark food ever. Owing to fears of kidnapping, Jhonattan had been chauffeured in an armored Hummer by a couple of off-duty commandos packing heavy metal. I got around on the back of moto-taxis, and the drivers delighted in hazing a gringo, shooting every gap at high speeds, often close enough to cars and buses that I could’ve reached out and touched them, were it not for my death-grip on the motorcycle. I ate a handful of meals with Jhonny’s lovely family, and a big crew of us stayed out all night after a concert, during which an ocean of alcohol was consumed. (Venezuela is reputed to have the world’s most beautiful women and, thanks to my reporter’s ace observational skills, I can confirm this.) Trying to find the right backdrop for a picture, we cruised around some of the worst neighborhoods in Maturin, where the people were always warm and welcoming, even though almost none of them knew Jhonny, or golf.
Luis and I had another episode of trespassing, though thankfully this time no firearms were involved. We sneaked onto the Quiriquire oil compound to try to find the abandoned golf course at which Jhonny had fallen in love with the game. We were working with some hazy directions from Carlos, but the compound was vast and hard to navigate. We were close to giving up when on a hillside I spied, despite the overgrown vegetation, the unmistakable contours of a fairway. Luis and I commenced an archeological dig, finding in the brush tee markers, stray balls, a flagstick and other discarded detritus. It was eerie, walking amid the ghosts of a deserted golf course, in a land that was so foreign. The next day we showed some pictures to Carlos. “It makes me nostalgic,” he said. “It makes me sad.” Looking back on our trip, I know exactly how he feels.
READ THE FULL STORY BELOW.
This story originally appeared in the April 9, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated.
On a blazing December day, Jhonattan Vegas returned to his hometown of Maturín, Venezuela, for the first time since everything had changed. He arrived in a private jet copiloted by his boyhood friend Joseph Naffah, a child of privilege with whom he had forged an unlikely bond during junior golf. Stepping onto the tarmac of General José Tadeo Monagas Airport, Vegas was greeted by a mural of Hugo Chàvez with one of el Presidente’s favorite slogans: Patria, socialismo o muerte! (Patriotism, socialism or death!) Vegas betrayed no emotion upon seeing these fighting words. In the terminal he was engulfed by friends and family, a few turned out in Nike hats or University of Texas polos. A small army of reporters and cameramen recorded the moment. Three hours earlier there had been a larger, rowdier crowd featuring the mayor of Maturín, a 20-person choir and ponytailed pixies twirling batons, but they had dispersed after Vegas’s arrival from Caracas was delayed by a series of screwups, an unfortunate development that was greeted with shrugs. Venezuelans are used to things that rarely run on time.
Vegas, 27, finally made it through the terminal and piled into an SUV idling at the curb. Three motorcycle cops raced ahead to clear traffic. (Unlike Vegas’s transportation during the preceding two days in Caracas, the SUV was not armored or equipped with bulletproof windows or driven by commandos.) The destination was the San Miguel Hotel, Golf & Club, one of 11 18-hole courses in a country of 28 million people. San Miguel was the venue for a fund-raising event benefiting the nascent Jhonattan Vegas Foundation, which is dedicated to building Maturín’s first public library and other educational initiatives. The last time Vegas had been home, in December 2010, he had just finished a successful year on the Nationwide tour but was known only to the tiny tribe of golfers in his country. A month later he dazzled the golf world by winning the Bob Hope Classic in only his second start as a PGA Tour rookie and then very nearly winning a week later at Torrey Pines, displaying not only an overpowering game but also a sincere, fun-loving charisma that poured through the TV screen. Years earlier Chàvez had famously dismissed golf as a “bourgeois” sport, but this opportunist took to the airwaves after the Hope to hail Vegas. “He beat all the gringos, nice one!” Chàvez said. “He is the pride of Venezuela.”
Being a national hero is not without complications for Vegas. Around 2002, Chàvez began shutting down the golf courses that were run by the state oil company, saying there were better uses for the land. (All these years later this fallow earth remains largely untouched.) In 2003, Vegas’s father, Carlos, a onetime caddie, said he signed a recall petition of Chàvez, as did millions of other Venezuelans. This roll call of dissidents became known as the Tàscon List, after the National Assembly member who published the names on the Internet. After Chàvez survived the recall referendum, there were reprisals for those on the Tàscon List; Carlos Vegas lost his food-concession business and another contract he had to feed workers at an Exxon Mobil plant. He could not find work for the next three years. With golf being treated as an enemy of the state, the 17-year-old Jhonattan was sent to Houston—alone, speaking only a few words of English, with one suitcase and a set of beat-up clubs—to live with Venezuelan expatriates and develop his game.
Following his against-all-odds victory at the Hope, Jhonattan longed to return home to celebrate, but it took 11 months for the political climate in Venezuela to be deemed suitable. Now, at San Miguel Hotel, Golf & Club, it took Vegas another half hour to make it the final 50 yards as he navigated the endless hugs and kisses and cellphone snapshots of another mob of well-wishers. Finally he reached a large room for a press conference that turned into something closer to a religious revival. Every answer was greeted with rapturous applause. Kids who were participants in the foundation tournament approached the microphone in the middle of the room and asked questions, wide-eyed. Old acquaintances got up and told touching stories, never bothering with a question. Finally Miguel Martínez, 39, came to the microphone. He had been known as Venezuela’s best golfer until he was superseded by Vegas. Martínez spoke in a quiet voice for more than 10 minutes, and so heartfelt was his testimonial that Vegas was blinking back tears for much of it.
“I have known Jhonattan since he was a little kid, and I am extremely proud of what he has done,” Martínez said. “He comes from humble origins and a hardworking family, like many of us. What he has done is amazing. More significant than the pride we feel for his success is what his victory can do for the future of this sport we all love. His success is symbolic of the possibilities for all of the poor children who are engaged in a daily fight for survival. The doors to a better life can be opened for them through golf, as they were for Jhonattan and me. Venezuelan golf has been through hard times. But we must do what we can to open those doors again. We cannot give up on the children. We lost track of many after the golf courses were closed. We had created a thriving, supportive community for them, and then it was all gone. We have to once again provide disadvantaged kids with an opportunity to learn this game. Golf builds character and strength. We can help them achieve their dreams, like Jhonattan has.”
When Vegas spoke, he said, “I love my country. Everything I do, I do for Venezuela.” Later, in a quieter, more introspective moment, he admitted, “There is a lot of pressure. It is hard enough trying to succeed on the PGA Tour and win tournaments. That role”—single-handedly saving golf in his homeland—”is a very big one. But I have to do all I can. Golf has given me everything I have. I owe it to the game and to my people to give back as much as I can.”
Breakfast time at Vegas’s parents’ place, an airy, modern, 3,000-square-foot apartment on a top floor of a white stone building a block from one of the main thoroughfares in Maturín, a petroleum hub near the northeastern coast of Venezuela. The air is alive with conversation and the smell of arepas, buns of ground corn that have been fried and stuffed with butter and meats and cheeses and sauces (and, on rare occasions, a stray vegetable). Carlos is asked how many days a week he eats arepas. “Ocho,” he says, with one of his thunderous laughs that seem to emanate from deep within a substantial belly. This was a particularly jolly occasion because for the first time in a year Carlos had all of his boys under the same roof. Carlitos (31), Julio (23) and Billy (20) were sitting around the dining room table with Jhonattan, while in the kitchen their mother, Maritza, cranked out arepas in a futile attempt to match the rate of consumption. Only a few hours earlier the entire family, and a dozen of Jhonattan’s friends, had returned from a concert that lasted from midnight until 5 a.m. Along the way nine bottles of 18-year-old whiskey were emptied, and just as many bottles of champagne. This is more or less a typical night out when Jhonattan is home. “Venezuelans really know how to party,” he says. “We get a little crazy.”
The apartment is stuffed with trophies and mementos from all of the boys’ careers. Julio is a junior on the Texas golf team, Billy a sophomore playing across town for St. Edwards University. (Carlitos holds a degree in agronomic engineering; he works for an oil drilling company in Maturín but dreams of becoming a golf course architect.) It is a loving, affectionate family, but the brothers compete against each other with a cutthroat intensity. Every Dec. 28 the Vegas clan plays a match that pits Julio, Carlitos and their dad against Jhonattan, Billy and their mom. They call it the Blacks versus the Browns, because the teams are arranged by complexion. Carlos’s skin is as dark as a dictator’s heart, while Maritza is a fair-skinned beauty; their boys come in different shades. It is not unimportant that Jhonattan is a man of color. In Venezuela, as throughout South America, the elites skew toward lighter skin, a look that is often described euphemistically as European. Ramón Mu√±oz, one of the first great Venezuelan golfers, says, “That Jhonattan is dark-skinned makes him stick out in the golf world. People notice him more. Not only in Venezuela, but everywhere. It establishes him as a man of the people.”
Once the arepas are polished off, Julio grabs a remote, switches off the Golf Channel feed of an Australian tournament and, from the DVR, cues up recorded coverage of the Venezuelan winter baseball league’s All-Star Game. Jhonattan was one of the featured attractions of the two-day affair in Caracas. Throughout the raucous home run derby—fans banged drums while the P.A. announcer shouted deafening play-by-play—Jhonattan stood behind home plate and received a procession of Venezuelan baseball royalty. Afterward, in the parking lot, he sounded like a starstruck fan. “Oh, man, that was incredible,” he said. “That was like a dream. I grew up watching those guys on TV and cheering for them. To have them come up to me and say congratulations and talk about how excited they were watching me win, that is blowing my mind.” The next night, he painted the outside corner with the ceremonial first pitch. Then he repaired to a spartan private box to drink the national beer, Polar, and watch the All-Star Game with two Venezuelan baseball legends, Andres Galarraga and Dave Concepcion. The engaging Galarraga is, without exaggeration, the most popular man in Venezuela. He sees a lot of himself in Vegas, as do others. “Journalists have commented on how similar we are,” Galarraga said from the private box high above the field. “We are always laughing. Even when we are going through a bad moment. We are very optimistic. That’s the best way to look at things and make things better. Jhonattan has a great disposition, he works hard at what he does. He is a great ambassador.”
Throughout the All-Star coverage Vegas got frequent face time on Venezuelan TV, but at one point he was identified by a graphic that misspelled his first and last names: JONATHAN VEGA. When this appears on the television at the family apartment, the Vegas boys howl with laughter. “You’ll have to win a couple more tournaments for them to get it right,” Billy cracks.
After tidying up the kitchen Maritza appears with scrapbooks of old photos and yellowed newspaper clippings. There is a grainy picture of two-year-old Jhonattan swinging a broomstick with freakishly good form. “He was a natural,” says his father, eyeing the photo. By the time Jhonattan was a teenager, the family lived at Quiriquire, an oil camp 15 miles from Maturín. The golf course had not yet been shuttered by President Chàvez, and there Vegas honed a swing of such ferocity that when he was 15, a local paper conjured a famous boxer in a headline: JHONATTAN “TYSON” VEGAS. In the story the young slugger professed the simple goal of “becoming one of the best golfers in the world.” (He’s not quite there yet—Jhonattan has been slowed in the first three months of 2012 by putting problems and a dinged-up shoulder.) Maritza laughs as she reads the clipping, at the kismet of a kid’s oversized dream being so close to coming true.
Bored by the familiar family stories and drowsy from brunch, the Vegas sons scatter one by one to take naps, to play golf or, in Jhonattan’s case, to meet his longtime girlfriend, Hildegard Struppek, as she arrives from Houston, where they live together and she is a grad student. Carlos is shown a few new photographs. The day before, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED had sneaked onto Quiriquire. The compound is still active, and massive piles of rebar and piping hint at upcoming construction, though not anytime soon; on this day only two workers could be found, one stretched out atop a bulldozer, snoozing, the other slouched under a tree, snacking. What used to be the golf course is now overgrown, unused land. Still, the contours of old fairways and greens are discernible. Carlos studies the images of a lost course and a life interrupted. After a few deep breaths he finally says, “It makes me nostalgic. It makes me sad.”
Venezuela’s first documented petroleum shipment occurred in 1593, when a lone barrel of oil was sent to Spain for Emperor Charles V’s medicinal use. By the 1930s, Venezuela was the largest oil-exporting nation in the world; a 1943 law established a 50–50 split on profits between the state and private industry, beginning the country’s complicated petropolitics, which continue to this day.
Oil brought vast wealth to the Venezuelan elites, and they congregated at stately Caracas Country Club, established in the 1920s with grounds laid out by Olmsted Brothers, and across town at the glamorous Valle Arriba Country Club, both of which were also popular with well-heeled American expatriates. Carlos Vegas grew up in the El Guire slum that fills the hills above Caracas, and beginning at age six he caddied at nearby Valle Arriba. Then, as now, the practice range is a sliver of land wedged between the 12th and 13th holes, and caddies collect the balls as their players hit them. Carlos fashioned a glove out of a milk carton to snag the balls as they whizzed by.
Observing the ruling class helped fuel his ambition for a better life. He worked his way through college, earning a degree in hospitality and tourism. In 1983, Carlos landed a job managing a restaurant at the oil camp Morichal and eventually took over the food concession for its nine-hole course. Jhonattan and Julio were born during this time, delivered into a tightly knit community of about 150 families, many of whom had relocated from the U.S. “It was an American culture—one big family,” says Carlos. “What was most valued were the children. Everything was done to help them learn, have fun, move around freely. The living was clean and safe. It was the opposite of growing up in an urban environment where you learn to be tough and hard. I thank God that my kids grew up in that setting. It was a magical place.”
Jhonattan’s memories are similarly fond. “We could ride our bikes everywhere,” he says, “and we could play golf all day, every day. What more could you ask for as a kid?”
Carlos was a natural athlete who had been taught the game by the caddies at Valle Arriba. He introduced a fundamentally sound swing to his sons but gave them the space to figure things out on their own. “I was my dad’s first student,” says Carlitos. “The job was always to teach my brothers. I helped Jhonattan. He helped Julio, and Julio helped Billy. That was the work plan. But it wasn’t work. The goal was to have fun. Always fun.”
Yet the Vegas boys were expected to be golfing gentlemen. During a family outing Carlitos hurled a club in anger and was promptly sent home for the rest of the day by his father, a moment the brothers still vividly recall. On another occasion Jhonattan was discovered with a cache of sparkling new balls that had gone missing from the pro shop. He may or may not have been among the boys who had liberated them, but as punishment Carlos made his son hit 400 practice balls in a row. Halfway through the old man began to feel a tinge of guilt and told Jhonattan he could stop. Instead, Jhonattan dutifully worked his way through the remaining 200 balls.
When Jhonattan was 12, the family relocated to Quiriquire, which offered a challenging, hilly course and a group of boys who were passionate about golf. Jhonattan quickly fell in with the crew, who called themselves Los Muchachos de Quiriquire. On the weekend Carlos would load up his sagging Jeep Wagoneer to drive the boys to regional tournaments. “Up to a dozen of them would pile into the car!” he says. “They sang and told jokes as we drove early in the morning. They were so happy. They formed such a strong bond that they are all still friends today.”
The idyllic life of the Vegas family was forever altered, according to Carlos, when he chose to register his opposition to Chàvez, who had come to power in 1999 on the wings of revolutionary rhetoric. “If you were a man who signed the Tàscon List, then you got hit hard,” Carlos says. “Anyone who appeared on that list couldn’t do any business with the state. So I lost the concession in Quiriquire. And the Exxon Mobil plant had been expropriated, so I lost that business as well.”
It took a couple of years for the impact of all this to play out. Carlos had saved up enough money to occasionally take Jhonattan to the U.S. to face better competition. In the summer of 2002 they traveled to Torrey Pines in San Diego for the Junior World Golf Championships, the tournament that launched the careers of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Lorena Ochoa, among others. Jhonattan exceeded expectations—including his own—by finishing sixth. From San Diego, Carlos and Jhonattan journeyed to Houston to visit old friends from home. Franci Betancourt had long been a leading figure in Venezuelan golf circles, three times flying the flag at the World Cup of Golf from 1966 to ’75 and then becoming a respected teaching pro at various oil camps, where he met Carlos. Franci’s son Gustavo was a contemporary of Jhonattan’s, and they were pals who had competed against each other in numerous Venezuelan junior tournaments. In 2000 the Betancourts relocated to Houston. Franci still felt a deep connection to his homeland, so he and his wife, Alba, began mentoring promising young Venezuelan golfers. After a few days in Houston, Carlos had a conversation with Franci that has long since passed into lore:
“I want Jhonattan to stay here,” Carlos said.
“You mean for lunch?”
Kevin Kirk’s life is also a story of golf and oil. Born in Odessa, Texas, his family moved to a Venezuelan oil camp called Tia Juana when he was a boy. At age eight he began taking golf lessons from Franci Betancourt. “He’s been a real big influence on the direction of my life,” Kirk says. He went on to be an All-America at Sam Houston State and spent most of the 1980s knocking around various professional tours before embarking on a career ministering to golf swings. When he was director of instruction at Cypresswood Country Club, near Houston, he reached into his past and brought over Betancourt as a teaching pro. Over time, Kirk helped guide the young Venezuelans who began boarding with Franci and his wife. Kirk was part of the initial meetings between Carlos and Franci, and once it was decided that Jhonattan would stay in Houston, Kirk was charged with easing his culture shock. He was not impressed by his initial inventory.
“Jhonattan literally spoke 10 words of English,” says Kirk. “He had six or seven cuss words and a little golf jargon—birdie, bogey, par. At that point he had clubs that he had knocked all the grooves off of. He had completely knocked all the chrome off of them. He had one or two shirts and a couple pairs of slacks, but everything had a bunch of miles on it. The shoes were dirty and looked as if they didn’t fit. You couldn’t even imagine this guy had just finished sixth at the Junior Worlds against all these kids sponsored by Titleist. It was pretty funny, actually.”
But Vegas possessed the one thing that matters most: “I had the energy to go forward,” he says. “I had the desire to be the best I can be.”
Kirk was moved to help because he could sense Jhonattan’s drive and the family’s desperation. “None of this was logical,” Kirk says. “But listening to Carlos’s story about the situation back home, and looking in Jhonattan’s eyes, it was the right thing to do.”
The first time Kirk went out to watch the kid play, he pulled up in a cart when Vegas was on the tee of the 7th hole of Cypresswood’s Tradition course, an uphill 530-yard par-5. Vegas was well on his way to his current dimensions of 6’3″ and 230 pounds, but Kirk had no idea of the kid’s savage strength. “He rears back with his driver and leaves it way up on the upslope,” says Kirk. “Then he hits a little nine-iron onto the green. He hit it 390 yards the first shot I saw him play. I said to myself, You have to be kidding.”
Vegas enrolled at a junior college and spent every morning learning English and every afternoon studying golf. “He never wanted to stop hitting balls,” says Gustavo Betancourt. “He’d see those pyramids of shiny white balls and say, ‘This is like heaven.'”
Vegas quickly became a force on the Texas amateur circuit, one memorable victory coming in a driving rainstorm, when he was outfitted in only a thin cotton sweatshirt. “That’s not a fun way to play golf,” he says, “but it made me tougher. Now when I play in bad conditions I laugh, because I have all the fancy rain gear and a caddie holding an umbrella for me. That’s almost too easy.”
Six months after arriving in the U.S., Vegas attempted to qualify for the PGA Tour’s Shell Houston Open. It was something of a lark, until he shot a 67 and played his way into the field. During tournament week he found himself sandwiched on the range between Hall of Famers Mickelson and Ernie Els. No one was paying attention to Vegas as he loosened up with a five-iron. “Then he takes out his driver,” says Kirk, who was standing behind his pupil, “and the first driver he hits, Phil stops in his tracks and spins around, because it makes such a distinct sound when Jhonattan hits it. It was distinctive even to a guy like Phil Mickelson. So Jhonattan whacks a few more, and now Phil is simply standing there watching him, and a few other guys are too. Finally [Mickelson] walks over to JV and says, ‘Hey, who are you? And where are you from?'”
Vegas shot 77–76 and missed the cut, but he says, “When I look back now, I’m kind of amazed how comfortable I felt. After that week I knew what my destiny was.”
Vegas’s ability to come through in the clutch helped him pass the SAT and Test of English as a Foreign Language. With the help of Rick Forester—a part owner of Cypresswood and member of a well-connected golf family—Vegas attracted the attention of a number of big-time college programs. Texas coach John Fields first met Vegas at the Cypresswood range. After watching exactly two swings Fields said, “We’ll take him”—and he meant it. Texas came through with a full ride, and in the fall of 2003 Vegas began to fulfill his promise to his parents that he would become the first member of his family to earn a college degree. (Carlitos went back to school a couple of years after his kid brother’s matriculation.) Vegas’s game was college-ready, but he was ill-equipped to fit in with his classmates. He had one towel and one set of sheets. “But no pillowcase!” he adds with a laugh. He had no car, computer or—gasp—cellphone. His English remained a work in progress. The Betancourts had been good surrogates for Vegas’s loving family, but in Austin, Jhonattan was all alone.
Until, suddenly, he wasn’t.
During his freshman year another guardian angel came into Vegas’s life, in the well-tanned form of Dick Kemp, a successful Austin businessman and longtime friend of the Texas golf program. Forester had asked his old friend Kemp to keep an eye on Vegas. During a couple of casual rounds of golf Vegas charmed Kemp—”He’s such a loving and warm young man,” Kemp says—but Kemp could sense Vegas’s displacement. Under the pretense of being curious about student housing, Kemp invited himself to inspect Vegas’s dorm room. “I was really angry about it,” Kemp says. “He had nothing. Both Jhonattan’s parents and Franci Betancourt thought that a scholarship meant everything would be taken care of. The tuition and books were, but there was so much else he needed. He couldn’t even afford to call his parents back home. I felt something needed to be done.”
Kemp was wary of running afoul of NCAA rules, but a lawyer friend hatched a clever solution: Kemp could attend to Jhonattan’s material needs if he became his legal guardian. Suddenly Vegas had a computer, a cellphone, a used Chevy Cavalier and a pillowcase. But still something profound was lacking.
“After Jhonattan had the cellphone for a few weeks, I was fielding calls more frequently than I was expecting,” says Kemp. “Then one day after the fifth or sixth call, I gruffly said, ‘What do you want?’ There was a silence, then he said, ‘I just wanted to know where you were.’ I felt like a real jerk because I finally realized how much this kid needed our love.”
Vegas began spending weekends at Kemp’s house, watching sports and doing laundry and enjoying meals prepared by Kemp’s girlfriend, Melisa. Yet for all the hospitality, Vegas was often sick during his first year in Austin. When he finally let slip about a toothache, Kemp took him to the dentist. Six root canals later, Jhonattan’s health improved dramatically.
Vegas had a solid but unspectacular career at Texas, receiving some notice when he made it to the semifinals of the 2007 U.S. Amateur. More important, he earned a degree in kinesiology. On graduation night, in May 2008, his patron saints came together at a party during which tears and spirits flowed. Jhonattan’s parents were there, of course, as were the Betancourts, Kevin Kirk, Rick Forester and the couple Jhonattan calls his American parents. “This whole experience encouraged me to ask Melisa to marry me,” Kemp says. “The Vegas family brought their love into our life, and it’s something special.” Kemp has become the legal guardian for Billy and Julio while they are in Austin, and both brothers drove Jhonattan’s hand-me-down Cavalier until it was retired with a quarter-million miles on it.
“Every time in my life I’ve needed help, someone has appeared,” Jhonattan says. “It’s overwhelming to think about it. God had a plan for me, for sure.”
As Vegas embarked on his pro career in the summer of 2008, his remarkable personal success story was playing out against the backdrop of golf under siege in his homeland. On YouTube there are morbidly fascinating videos of Chàvez in the streets of Venezuela pointing at buildings and declaring, “Expropiese.” Just like that, the government owns them. Those who love golf in Venezuela fretted that their playing fields would suffer the same fate, especially after the mayor of Caracas tried to seize the Caracas Country Club under the auspices of using the land to build housing for the poor. (He backed down after a legal skirmish.) “There was nervousness, there was fear,” says Francisco Alvarado, the head pro at Valle Arriba. “We didn’t know what the future held, for the club or for the sport. We needed something to change the perception of golf in this country.”
The golden age of golf in Venezuela came in the 1960s and ’70s. The country’s national championship was an important part of the wintertime Copas de Americas schedule and drew pros from around the world. Americans won eight out of nine beginning in 1961, with the victors including Al (Mr. 59) Geiberger and Masters champ Art Wall. In the ’70s international stars Roberto de Vicenzo (Argentina), Tony Jacklin (England) and David Graham (Australia) prevailed.
In the 1990s the November and December golf calendar increasingly became defined by tournaments in Australia, South Africa and Asia. The South American tour declined in importance, and Venezuelan events ceased to attract top talent. Chàvez’s antipathy for the game only increased the country’s isolation in the golfing world. “Do you mean to tell me this is a people’s sport?” he once asked on national television. “It is not.”
Little wonder that top lieutenants in the government were never seen around Caracas’s private clubs, where entry fees can run to the equivalent of $50,000. Members of the Venezuelan golf firmament still marvel at how Vegas’s victory at a place called Hope (and Chàvez’s subsequent public crowing) changed everything. “It was as if a dark cloud suddenly lifted,” says Henrique Lavie, the president of Lagunita Country Club. “Jhonattan was the right person at the right time.”
Throughout South America, countries with little golf tradition are beginning to ramp up funding now that the sport is returning to the Olympics in 2016, when the Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro. There is the possibility that in Rio, Jhonattan will represent Venezuela alongside Julio. The PGA Tour is also making a significant investment in the region with the newly created PGA Tour Latinoamerica. The Venezuelan golf community is lobbying hard to get an event after ’12, which happens to be an election year for Chàvez. “The government is looking at golf differently now,” says Lavie, who doubles as the executive director of PGA Tour Latinoamerica. “Seeing the pride Jhonattan has brought to Venezuela, of course the Ministry of Sports wants to give golf more support. Jhonattan is winning, the PGA Tour Latinoamerica is coming, the Olympics are coming—this is the time.”
And not just at the macro level. In a country with only a handful of public courses, the private clubs are belatedly recognizing that they need to be better stewards. “We need to open the doors to the people, so golf can be seen differently,” says Lavie. “We cannot be so exclusive and isolated. If we keep the doors closed, we will not exist.” At Lagunita this means offering times when nonmembers can tee it up. Significantly, a handful of prominent government officials have recently accepted invitations to join the club. Across town at Valle Arriba the goal is to be even more inclusive. Every Monday the club allows residents of El Guire—Carlos Vegas’s old barrio—to play free of charge, with equipment supplied by Valle Arriba. “People who know nothing about golf know Jhonattan,” says Alvarado. “The kids in the slums know his name, know his story. They think he is one of them. So we feel a responsibility to give them the opportunity to better themselves through sport, as Jhonattan has.” Vegas, too, sees himself as an agent of change, and his foundation is an important part of his legacy. It was his calculated decision to build a library rather than a driving range. “A library will benefit more people right away,” he says.
But a primary goal of the foundation is to nurture the aspirations of disadvantaged young golfers. During his fund-raising tournament in Maturín, Vegas played alongside DisMary Màrquez, 17. To see her swing is to know she has been bestowed with supreme athletic gifts, but DisMary’s weary smile hints at a larger struggle. She lives in one of Caracas’s most notorious barrios and does not carry her hand-me-down set of clubs on the street for fear of being targeted. As DisMary has struggled to transcend her bleak surroundings, she admits to having one recurring thought: Can someone please help me get out of this hell I’m living in?
Vegas instantly bonded with DisMary and since their round together he has promised to pay for her to relocate to Houston, where she can benefit from Kevin Kirk’s tutelage and the Betancourts’ homemade arepas. Vegas vows that she is only the first of many young Venezuelans he will bring to Houston to follow his path. Why start with DisMary? “I could see she has that energy to go forward, the same energy I had,” he says. “All she needs is a little help.”
It is no surprise that Vegas wants to give back, because he has been given so much by so many. Yet the greatest gift may have been President Chàvez’s hostility toward golf. It forced Vegas to be sent away from the country he loves, so he could one day return to save the sport that has made him.