THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS I Everyone, it seems, has a Johnny Vegas story. There is the Texas assistant pro: “We’re playing this 650-yard par 5, into the wind with a second shot over water, and he hit two 3-woods to eight feet and makes the putt. I told him, those three shots sum up why you’re going to make it.”
Or the member at The Woodlands: “I was hitting balls at the Tournament Course and there was this big guy at the end of the range with the best swing I’d ever seen. I asked him if he took lessons here and he said, ‘Oh, yes, from Franci (Betancourt).’ So I signed up for lessons. I didn’t learn until later that Jhonattan was a tour pro.”
Or the bus driver in Phoenix: “He was the nicest, most genuine guy we had all week. His story is amazing. It brings tears to your eyes.”
Or his golf coach at the University of Texas, John Fields: “In his first college tournament, at Sawgrass Country Club, we had issued everybody team uniforms – shirts, hats, shoes, that sort of thing. So I walked out to the 18th hole to watch Jhonattan finish his first round and he’s walking down the fairway carrying one of his golf shoes. I said, ‘Hey, what’s up with the shoes?’ He didn’t want to tell me that they didn’t fit. He was so appreciative that somebody had given him shoes that he wasn’t going to complain, even though his feet were covered in blisters.”
And on and on.
The drumbeat of Jhonattan Vegas stories goes far beyond the thrilling win in only his second PGA Tour start of his rookie season, or the go-for-broke T3 finish at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines where a 230-yard 5-iron on the final hole, punctuated by Vegas yelling, “Be right, baby!” fell four yards short and into the water.
Everyone who meets him feels like they know him, and everyone who knows him feels comfortable telling a story. Most of the tales include words like: humble, appreciative and genuine. Men stand taller when talking about him, and women dab moisture from the corners of their eyes. In a world where Tour rookies regularly display an air of confidence bordering on cocky, and perks like courtesy cars, equipment deals, and lockers filled with goodies have become the norm, fans have flocked to this poor kid from South America, in part because of his talent, but also because Vegas is, to the outside observer, the embodiment of the American dream.
Vegas returned to his adopted home north of Houston, Texas, last week as a triumphant hero, a Tour rookie with an early-season win and a world of potential. The Woodlands Country Club held a reception for him on Friday that was, according to director of golf Jim Dickson, the most enthusiastically attended event the club has ever hosted. “Never seen anything like it,” Dickson said. “It was unbelievable.”
It was, indeed, especially for a club that has a long tour history. Steve Elkington, K.J. Choi and Jeff Maggert lived there for years, and 25-year LPGA tour veteran Susie Redman and Hall of Famer Carol Mann now teach at The Woodlands. But Johnny Vegas is different, and not just because his 6-foot-2, 230-pound body generates 130 mph clubhead speed, or because of the name, one that Vegas says, “I’m getting used to. I’ve never seen myself as a Johnny, but it’s okay.”
The reason for the enthusiasm is the way Vegas got here, and how he has handled himself since breaking onto the scene.
“I think people see someone who has overcome so much and worked so hard to be where he is today, but who also is grounded and genuine and who feels deeply blessed to be where he is,” says Kevin Kirk, the instructor at The Woodlands who has coached Vegas for the past 10 years. “I like to say he’s an overnight success that has been 10 years in the making. Now the world is finally getting to hear Jhonattan’s story, and people are reacting to that.”
The story goes like this: Vegas grew up in something called an “oil camp,” in the hinterlands of Venezuela. As he described it: “Imagine a community like The Woodlands only surrounded by the desert, nothing around it.”
His father, Carlos, was a caterer for oil workers, and from the age of 2, Jhonattan swatted rocks, balls, cans, anything he could find, with a broom stick. The camp had a nine-hole golf course where the Vegas boys spent most of their afternoons hitting balls and learning the game.
“We had a nice house, plenty of room,” Vegas said. “It had no electricity, but it was really nice.”
Hold on. No electricity? He delivered this earnest proclamation without a hint of sarcasm, and seemed embarrassed by the surprise his listeners showed. He had hoped to make a point about the great life his parents had provided. That they lived without power came across as an afterthought.
Vegas showed the kind of natural gift for the game that went largely unappreciated in his home country. Only an old Venezuelan pro named Franci Betancourt, who had moved from Maracaibo to The Woodlands to work with Kirk, appreciated what was coming. Betancourt had mentored a number of talented juniors from Venezuela, including his own son, Gustavo, and Maria Martinez, who was the SEC woman golfer of the year in her senior season at Auburn and the first Venezuelan to qualify for the LPGA Tour. But Betancourt kept telling Kirk, “The real diamond is not here yet. The best has not come.”
In 2002, Vegas showed up, and Betancourt said, “There he is.” Kirk watched him make three swings and understood what Betancourt had been saying.
Carlos had brought Jhonattan to visit Betancourt on the way to San Diego for the Junior World, an event Vegas qualified for by winning the Venezuelan Junior championship. At the time, Jhonattan spoke 10 words of English (“Five of those were curses,” Kirk joked.) and his father spoke even less. So, Betancourt sent his own son to Torrey Pines as a caddie and translator. Vegas finished sixth. On the way back through Houston, Carlos said to Kirk and Betancourt, “I’d like to leave him here.”
“You mean for lunch?” Kirk said. No, he meant for good.
“We had to make a decision pretty quickly,” Kirk said. “So, Franci and I met for about 20 minutes and realized we could make the logical decision or the right decision. We chose the right one.”
Vegas moved in with Betancourt with a duffle full of clothes and an old golf bag. “Franci’s house was always that place where you could go and feel welcome,” Vegas said. “He was like family.”
The newly adopted family campaigned to get Jhonattan into college, a monumental hurdle for a kid whose resume´ was thinner than his command of the English language. “I told every coach, ‘The deal is simple: you can have him, but he has to have a full ride, and he doesn’t speak English,’” Kirk said. “’We’re working on the English. Do you still want him?’ ”
Texas did. Casey Wittenberg had committed to the Longhorns, but when he changed his mind and went to Oklahoma State, Fields took a chance by offering a full ride to Vegas.
“I felt like that baseball scout who wanders into the little town and sees the kid throw a 102 mph fastball,” Fields said. “Yeah, sometimes he might throw it over the backstop, but you know there’s a talent there.”
A year after setting foot on American soil, Vegas passed the English proficiency exam and scored well enough on the SAT to gain NCAA eligibility. Four years after that, he graduated with a degree in kinesiology.
“It’s remarkable,” Fields said. “He told me once, ‘Coach, imagine if you were trying to go to school and play golf in China where you didn’t speak the language or know the culture. That’s what it was like for me.’ ”
Now, Vegas faces some new adjustments. After the Hope and Torrey Pines, his cell phone rang an average of 140 times a day, so much, in fact, that it short circuited. Fan and media requests continue to flood in, and he is discovering the challenges that come with being the hottest item in a culture obsessed with the Next Big Thing.
“The media has been the biggest surprise,” he says. “In terms of golf, training with Kevin and Franci, things are pretty normal that way. But you have to make every aspect of your life outside of golf more efficient. The thing I’ve seen so far is that once you reach a different level as an athlete, more people want more attention.
“How do you make everyone around you feel that you are the same guy, but at the same time say, ‘No, I can’t do that right now.’ Some people get angry and say, ‘You’re in over your head.’ But it’s not that way at all. I just have to keep my priorities right. It can be tough, but we’re making it the best we can.”
People see an Arnold Palmer quality in Vegas, an innocent graciousness that cannot be taught and most certainly cannot be faked, even from someone who has won four times around the world since August, starting at the Nationwide Tour’s Wichita Open.
He understands and appreciates everything and everyone that has made his journey possible. Within minutes of his Masters invitation arriving in the mail, he photographed it and posted it on Facebook. And on Friday, as he worked on chip shots around the Tournament Course at The Woodlands, he took time to speak to a foursome teeing off on the first hole. “Who’s the low handicap in this group?” Vegas asked. “She’s not here yet,” came the reply. The members got a kick out of him, but Vegas got a kick out of them as well.
“I cannot understand why you would ever be rude to people,” he said. “There is no reason. I understand that you cannot say, ‘Hi,’ to absolutely everyone, but most of the time you have time, so why wouldn’t you do it? Why would you ever want to say things that are not nice?”
If he continues to play the kind of golf he displayed in January, people will be saying ‘hi’ a lot more. In the meantime, Vegas is adjusting to his newfound “it” status with remarkable poise.
When he returned home after the Phoenix Open, Alba Betancourt, Franci’s wife, picked him up at the airport and took him home for dinner. When Franci walked in, he said, “Well, Jhonattan, you went away humble and poor, and now you return famous and rich.”
Vegas leapt from the table and hugged his teacher. “Coach, don’t worry,” he said. “I am still the same guy. I will always be the same guy.”