Villegas Goes Back to His Future

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla | At a time when the currently drab, Tiger-less PGA Tour could use a healthy transfusion of charisma going into the $8.5 million WGC-CA Championship at Doral this week, Camilo Villegas pushed the goose bump needle to some of its highest levels of the season Sunday in prevailing by a tournament record-tying five shots at his hometown Honda Classic at PGA National.
      The heartthrob darling of south Florida has always been immensely popular in these parts, particularly here and at Doral in the Miami suburbs, ever since he finished tied for second, a shot behind Woods in the 2006 Ford Championship at Doral. The area’s vibrant Hispanic community has come out in full force to watch him play at both venues, providing a distinctive Latin beat behind the gallery ropes in support of the 28-year-old Colombian contortionist, known as Spiderman for his body-bending, green-hugging technique in lining up his putts.
      But Villegas, who lives in nearby Jupiter, would like to be a champion for all the people, known as an elite golfer capable of compiling multiple wins and the occasional major title. That’s how he performed Sunday, opening an early six-shot lead with three straight birdies in the middle of his round on the way to a 68 and 13-under total of 267.
      Two years ago, a popular national golf publication posed Villegas on the cover standing toe to toe with another flashy rising star, Anthony Kim, after a breakthrough 2008 season when both players won twice and seemed poised to continue that success. The clear implication: they were the future of the game, up and coming fearless challengers to Tiger Woods.
      It never happened, at least not in the immediate future of 2009, when neither man won again, or ever contended in the majors. Coming into this week, their careers were virtually mirror images. Both had two wins, three seconds and six third place career finishes. Villegas had two top-10 finishes in major events; Kim, now 24, only one.
      In the Honda, they were 36-hole co-leaders, with delicious possibilities for a dramatic weekend, at least until Kim made bogeys on his last three holes Saturday, posted 73 and was six behind after 54 holes. The Korean-American kid from Los Angeles who favors gaudy hubcap-sized belt buckles rallied Sunday with three birdies on his first four holes but never got closer to Villegas than three shots and ended second at 67-272. With six of his last eight rounds in the 60s, there is every reason to believe Kim’s breathtaking game is finally getting back on track.
       There’s no question about that for Villegas, third in the WGC-Accenture Match Play and tied for eighth last week in Phoenix, including an opening 62 in his first Tour stroke play appearance after starting his season playing European Tour events.
       Villegas said this week he’s taking a more business-like approach this season. For one, he decided to trim his flowing hair back to a far shorter cut, and he also has spent more judicious time practicing, working out in the gym and riding with his pals in a cycling club that often takes him on 50- and 100-mile jaunts when he’s off the Tour.
       “Maybe last year I wasn’t as committed as I should have been, took a couple of things for granted,” he said. “I’m not going to say last year was a bad year. I played 27 events and missed two or three cuts, so it was a very consistent year, but it was a little frustrating because I felt I should have played a little better.
       “After some analysis, I believe I was being too hard on myself. I wasn’t treating myself like I treat people. One day, I said, ‘If somebody treats me like I treat myself, I would just have a problem with that.’ That’s when I realized, just take it easy man, have fun. There’s a lot of people wanting to play this game for a living. It’s harder than a lot of people think. But I love it, so I’ve got to enjoy it.”
      There was plenty to savor last week, even a grueling travel grind that took him from Phoenix to Miami on Monday, another flight to Colombia the same day and a return to south Florida on Wednesday, preventing him from playing a practice round at PGA National.
       Villegas went south because the Nationwide Tour played its first event in Bogota last week, mainly because of his lobbying efforts to convince the Tour to schedule a tournament there. On Tuesday, Villegas did some early interviews, met with some of his sponsors for breakfast, conducted a youth clinic at 11 a.m., played in the afternoon pro-am, then attended a tournament dinner and party that lasted until 1 a.m. Wednesday. A few hours later, he caught a 6 a.m. flight back to south Florida.
       Villegas said he particularly enjoyed the youth clinic in Colombia, especially when he opened the session to questions.
      “One was really funny,” he said. “The kid looks at me and he goes ‘Camilo, how does it feel to be the second best player in the world?’ I’m like, I don’t know if I’m second best, and I wonder who is the first? So I knew exactly what the kid was thinking.”
       Villegas also would like to think that lofty status remains a distinct possibility. At least this week at the Honda Classic, he was No. 1 by far, perhaps the starting point for a promising trend.


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