The Loop

Vegas 'has come here from a million miles away'

January 20, 2011

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- The notion that PGA Tour players roll off a country club assembly line never really could have withstood scrutiny, but occasionally a player comes along who renders the idea preposterous. The latest to do so is rookie Jhonattan Vegas, who shares the 36-hole lead at the Bob Hope Classic.

His is story that qualifies among the most interesting in golf. He is from Venezuela, a country governed by a man, Hugo Chavez, who calls golf "a bourgeois sport," and wishes to seize the nation's golf courses and use the land to alleviate a housing shortage.

Vegas was introduced to the game by his father, Carlos. "His dad walked several miles to be a caddie at a nine-hole course built by Exxon," said Dick Kemp, a Texas real estate developer who was Vegas' guardian when he attended the University of Texas and a man he considers his American father. Vegas took up the game there with whatever equipment he could cobble together, including sticks and stones.

Carlos, meanwhile, saw an opportunity with the community of American oil workers there. "He took over the commissary, cleaned the clothes, cleaned the houses, whatever needed to be done," Kemp said. "The dad made something out of dirt poor and he did a damn good job out of it. He made enough money to buy a suburban for his business. He made enough money to buy an apartment."

When Vegas came to the U.S. at 17, he was unable to speak English, yet he graduated from Texas and is now playing the PGA Tour by virtue of having finished seventh on the Nationwide Tour money list in 2010.

"He has come here from a million miles away," said Kemp, who remains an advisor to Vegas and is in La Quinta following him this week. "Like going to the moon."

-- John Strege