December 28, 2008

Game On

Friends and foes Camilo Villegas and Anthony Kim look to take their trash-talking rivalry to another level in 2009

Camilo Villegas was in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, Calif., two nights before the opening round of the Chevron World Challenge. He was there for a photo shoot with Anthony Kim, the PGA Tour's other young, charismatic golfer who even had Tiger Woods taking notice during his recovery from knee surgery. "You knew that was coming, [with] their talent," Woods said. "It was just a matter of time before they broke through and won events."

But Kim was late, and Villegas, ever the perfectionist, was getting impatient with his friend. Woods said it was a matter of time, but time takes on a different meaning for Kim, wild and free at 23 years old, than it does for Villegas, who is more mature and under control at age 26. A.K. was fashionably late. That's what rock stars such as A.K. do. Kim's day-to-day guy, Chris Armstrong of IMG, checked his BlackBerry. "He has been working out," said Armstrong.

That drew a light, semi-sarcastic, semi-uncomfortable laugh as everyone checked their watches or the clocks on their cell phones.

A.K. is a gym rat only if there's a basketball court, a ball and somebody to trash talk. Swing coach Adam Schriber says Kim has range 10 feet outside the three-point line: "He's so efficient at transferring energy," Schriber says. The problem is Anthony has been displaying too much nocturnal energy and has been limping around on a bad ankle since the Oklahoma-Texas football game. The story is that Kim injured himself walking down a stairway at a friend's home. "I thought there were four steps, and there were only three," Kim says with a grin.

We're all just twenty-something years old, trying to find our way in life. I'm not too worried about the golf.'

-- Anthony Kim

While denying that he was hanging from the chandeliers in Louisville during the post-Ryder Cup victory party, he did admit to nearly breaking his jaw riding a horse in New Zealand while there for the Kiwi Challenge and temporarily throwing off his golf swing while taking batting practice at Fenway Park the week of the Deutsche Bank Championship. Kim's jumper, like his golf game, hasn't been getting much work in the off-season.

It's not that Kim spent 2008 running his mouth more than his legs; his game did plenty of talking, with wins at the high-profile Wachovia Championship and Tiger's tournament, the AT&T National, plus a slam-dunk singles victory against his new pal Sergio Garcia in the Ryder Cup, where he questioned a ruling by saying, "You gotta do what you gotta do." What's more, the kid who the media once labeled "brash" had become a pressroom idol. The understated Villegas spoke loudly, too, more with his clubs than his tongue, winning the BMW Championship and Tour Championship in back-to-back tournaments. Kim played in the final group with Villegas both weeks.

They not only won events, they did it with endearing smiles and, as with Woods, a total lack of fear. Whether it was Kim saying to his caddie, "I'm not playing for second," at the BMW Championship, or Villegas making birdie on the 71st hole of the Tour Championship at East Lake, it was clear that Kim and Villegas were not only friends but fiery competitors who tore at each other in competition and broke bread at night.

"You know what, I see some of the guys up there at Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the world, and it seems like they don't get along too good," says Villegas. "Is it the golfing competitiveness? I don't know, but I'd love to get up there and get along with the guys I'm playing. If you're up there, you're going to be competing against them a lot. You're going to have your chances. You're going to have your wins, your losses. At the end of the day, you can walk off the golf course, shake hands and congratulate the other guy. That sets a great example. It's so nice to hear that from a guy you're trying hard to beat that day.

"Why make it uncomfortable?' he asks. "Why make it unfriendly? That's our deal."

Kim said the same thing while at his home in La Quinta during Thanksgiving week. "First of all, I consider all of them my friends," he said. "We're all just twentysomething years old, trying to find our way in life. I'm not too worried about the golf."

With Woods out they gained the confidence necessary to take aim at the top 10 in the World Ranking, all the while maintaining an Odd Couple-esque friendship. Villegas is a meticulous, dedicated hard worker, Kim, simply put, enjoys his celebrity status. Their next step is to win majors or World Golf Championship events while playing globally as affiliate members of the European Tour.

Camilo Villegas and Anthony Kim

To get there Kim has started working with strength coach Craig Davies, while Villegas rides up Jupiter Island and along the Florida coast on one of his four road bikes. Even in mid-December, he was still all-work, traveling across the country after the Merrill Lynch Shootout -- where he and Greg Norman shot 57 in the final-round scramble format to finish third -- to play in Tiger's event.

Just before that two-week tournament stretch, Villegas had been in Colombia, where he was proud of riding 17½ hours along the mountains with a group of cyclists that included Santiago Botero, a Tour de France stage winner. Experts at Villegas' cycling club in Jupiter, Fla., say if he dedicated himself, he could make the Colombian National Team. But he wants to represent his country in golf, playing for Norman at the Presidents Cup in 2009 and perhaps the Olympics in 2016.

I'd love to get [to the top of the ranking] and get along with the guys I'm playing. Why make it uncomfortable?'

-- Camilo Villegas

After arriving at Sherwood CC for the Chevron, Villegas played nine holes as soon as the event's pro-am concluded, finishing in the dark. After almost every shot, Villegas asked caddie Gary Matthews to check his shoulder alignment. Everything was done with a meticulous purpose, but that is Villegas, famous at the University of Florida not only for his golf but also for numbering his socks.

"He always has been like that," says Matthews. "His detail for everything is phenomenal. You just look at his yardage book to see that. Every time he plays a hole, he'll go to the back of the green and look at a hole to see where to miss it and where the [proper] side is. When he's playing well, he's not short siding himself. He knows what he's trying to do."

Finally, the elevator door at the Four Seasons opened and Kim's entourage burst out. Kim is told that Villegas is a little disturbed at his tardiness. Kim immediately goes street and starts barking about how Villegas "doesn't want to mess with The Kid," and "that's a fight he doesn't want to get into," but it's all in a playful tone. When told that the previous week in Florida, Villegas jokingly said Kim couldn't get down in his famous Spiderman putt-reading pose because of Kim's just-as-famous belt buckle, Kim shot back, "That's the best he's got?"

Kim proudly states he can out-smack even the great trash talker, Tiger Woods, as he did in a recent commercial shoot for Nike in Fort Worth. ("I'm way funnier than Tiger," he says.) And Phil Mickelson wasn't in Kim's league during practice rounds at the Ryder Cup. A.K. owned him, and actually it was Phil who got more out of their pairing than Kim.

"I'm glad I got the workout in because I'm feeling sexy," Kim says to the beat going off in his head.

This is what close friend and mentor Sterling Ball calls "the electric Anthony," the urban free spirit who appears on Jim Rome's radio show and who still has the folks in Charlotte talking about the way he wore their blue blazer everywhere after his Wachovia victory. When A.K. turns it on, he turns it on like a younger version of Muhammad Ali.

Villegas turns it on, too, but in a subtler way -- a way that appeals not only to the young ladies, but the corporate sponsors that adorn his clothes. As Kim turned a corner in the lobby, he spied Villegas working his iPhone while sitting on a couch with his legs up on a coffee table. Out of the corner of his eye, Villegas could see Kim coming. There was a quick glance, a shake of the head, and a smile.

"Excuse me," said Kim, purposely bumping Villegas.

"You know who you've got on Thursday," Villegas said, already knowing the Chevron tee times.

Kim shook his head to indicate he didn't know. A.K. is stumped.

"Me," Villegas said.

Kim took off his T-shirt and replaced it with a blue one Nike had sent to the hotel. "This is a good look for me," he says. "I'm trying to look professional these days."

Waiting until the camera was rolling, Camilo planted the parting shot with the cool that he showed on the 17th hole at the Tour Championship, when he had no option but to go at the pin. It was not just the way he said it, but more the timing of it, and the way the chord was struck, that was brilliant and fearless.

"Maybe I'll teach you something about being a professional," he said, and even A.K. had to admit that Villegas left this session as they had the year, all square.