PGA Tour

Camilo Villegas completes return from tragedy and golf's abyss to win Bermuda Championship


Gregory Shamus

November 12, 2023

He was weakened by injury and broken by heartache, whatever resolve remained subdued by the knowledge that time and fate were not on his side. Camilo Villegas could have gone away and no one would have blamed him, because how do you make sense—how do you keep going?—after the loss of something so dear. But that’s what Villegas did, refusing to believe the wilderness he found himself in was his new reality. There were stumbles and detours and no guarantee that his direction was true. Yet he kept going, attempting to rediscover the play that made a career and fuse it with the man he had become.

There were flashes it was working, although that is a verdict aided by the benefit of hindsight, for in the moment those flashes can also be false hopes. Until a week ago those sparks were mostly done in the deep recesses of the sport and thus went mostly unseen. But what we saw in Bermuda showed what we saw in Cabo was no aberration: Villegas has made his way out of the darkness. With a final-round 65, the 41-year-old captured the Butterfield Bermuda Championship, his first win in over nine years to complete a return that underlined the will of the human spirit.

"Tough to put in words, what a ride man,” Villegas said after a two-shot victory. "I love this game, it’s given me so many great things. But in the process it kicks your butt.”

Adversity is a word overused in sports and especially in golf. It’s employed for things as frivolous as a bad shot or self-imposed controversy, and occasionally as a nod to poor play and injury. Villegas is the exception that no one wants. In 2020, the Colombian revealed through tears at a Korn Ferry Tour event that his 22-month-old daughter Mia was battling tumors on her brain and spine. “We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” an emotional Villegas said that June. “She started her second round of chemo; the doctor doesn’t want to do a very detailed scan until after a third round. It’s some anxious times.” A month later, the PGA Tour announced that Mia had passed.

Villegas returned to play not long after Mia’s death at the urging of his wife, believing the best way forward was to reconnect with a game he had begun to separate from. He had once been the next big thing on tour, his aggressive play paired with good looks and bold fashion and childlike flamboyance standing out from the sport’s sea of vanilla. He won two playoff events in 2008, including the Tour Championship, and snagged his third victory 18 months later at the Honda Classic. His bark lived up to the bite.

At least it did for a five-year span. In 2012 his game started to go south. His win at the 2014 Wyndham Championship was one of just two top-three finishes over a 10-year stretch. Villegas lost his short game, followed soon by his confidence. A shoulder injury added to his woes. He missed the playoffs in six of seven seasons, and just months ago it seemed retirement might be on the horizon when Villegas served as a color analyst for Golf Channel’s broadcast of the Wyndham Championship. “The reality is that I am getting older,” he explained in August. “I'm 41, you don't see too many 40-somethings winning on the PGA Tour. I have been struggling first with an injury and then trying to get back into top form. And your reaction is—because you know, they are seeing your career wind down a little bit—but your heart doesn't want it that way; you want to keep competing.”

Turns out Villegas could not silence the calls from within. He had been working with a new instructor, Jose Campra, and while the results were not there Villegas felt they would come. Just as importantly, the game had given him a renewed purpose, believing he was playing for more than himself. “Golf,” his wife Maria Ochoa told Camilo, “is what you’ve done over all these years and golf has given you so many great things,’ and little Mia has been inspiring these last few months to keep doing what we’re doing.”

It appeared Villegas was on the precipice of putting a capstone on a feelgood comeback last week at the World Wide Technology Championship, around the lead for the entire tournament only to ultimately come in second after Erik van Rooyen’s 72nd hole eagle. Given Villegas’ track record, it was a wonderful story, but one that felt confined to the week. But Villegas proved his play was no fluke with a 67-63 start in Bermuda and backed it up with a Saturday 65 to enter the final round at Port Royal G.C. one behind Alex Noren. Still, whatever conviction Villegas’ play conveyed was not what he felt inside.

"Let me be honest, let's tell the viewer out there, people think that we just kind of chill out here and we're very comfortable doing what we're doing," Villegas said Friday evening. "There's a lot of demons out here and when you've been doing it for a long time, golf is hard."

Only Villegas continued to make this ridiculously hard game look easy on Sunday morning, birdieing four of his first seven holes to grab the lead from Noren at the turn. The wind decided to show up for the finishing stretch and Noren and others had to ditch their ambitions of aggressive play for a defensive mindset and Villegas followed suit, playing to the fat part of the greens and taking the big number out of play. It wasn’t the most exciting finish, but it’s what the moment called for, and Villegas delivered. But this is Villegas we’re talking about, who even in his 40s still pops his collar. He showed he still has a penchant for the dramatic, sticking his approach at the 235-yard par-3 16th to 15 feet, and a mean up-and-down from the greenside bunker at the par-5 17th—while Noren failed to do the same—bestowed a two-shot lead going into the final hole. A birdie lag putt sealed the comeback of the year.

"Life is interesting, it goes up and down both on the personal side and on the professional side," Villegas said. "Just got to keep a path and you've got to keep your mind where it needs to be. Like I said, I'm a hard worker, I love working, I love having a purpose every morning and that's kind of what I did."

The win gives Villegas all the usual goodies. A spot in the Masters field, a two-year exemption on tour, a chance to put that broadcasting career on the backburner for some time. That is all well and good. But to understand what Villegas did is to understand where he came from and what he endured, and that is something that’s hard to encapsulate in dollar signs and trophies.

"I just want to thank everyone who supported me on this journey,” Villegas said on the 18th green. “The support has been unbelievable. It kept building up. Everyone on the island was great.

“I got my little one watching, smiling. She’s where she needs to be.”

In one sense, what we saw in Bermuda was nothing more than a game, a performance, a distraction from the pangs of life. Villegas knows this more than most of us ever will. Yet after he tapped in on the 18th Sunday, Villegas looked upward, fighting like hell to keep back the tears he knew were coming. To see what Camilo Villegas did, through the hurt and the doubt, showed a game can still mean a hell of a lot.