Vegas puts Venezuela, golfers of color on the map with Olympic bid

8/5/2016, 7:38 a.m.
Venezuela is renowned for producing baseball players and beauty queens. On the other hand, the South American nation is an ...
Jhonattan Vegas

Venezuela is renowned for producing baseball players and beauty queens.

On the other hand, the South American nation is an unlikely location for producing a world-class golfer.

From a land with little in the way of courses, instruction or golfing tradition, Jhonattan Vegas stands tall — literally at a burly 6-foot-3 — as the shining exception.

Vegas, who won the Canadian Open on July 24, is the first Venezuelan to attain a PGA card, much less win a PGA event. 

Now he will be the lone athlete wearing Venezuela’s yellow, red and blue colors at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

This is first time golf has been an Olympic sport since 1904. Competition Aug. 11 through 14 and Aug. 17 through 20 will involve 72 holes — four rounds — at Rio’s Olympic Golf Club.

Despite a recent hot streak, Vegas, 31, may rate a long shot to win or even challenge the world’s premier shot makers.

Then again, he faced extraordinary odds in advancing so far from his birthplace in Maturin, where his golf career started by swatting rocks with broomsticks and eventually playing on a 9-hole course built for oil-camp employees.

Venezuelans have excelled in baseball, with about 60 natives now playing Major League Baseball in the United States.

Venezuelan women also dazzle on the pageant runways. According to MissVenezuela.com, the nation has celebrated six Miss Worlds, seven Miss Universes, seven Miss Internationals and two Miss Earths.

Golf, by contrast, is on the Venezuelan backburner, assuming it warrants any spot at all.

The World Golf Foundation reports that Venezuela, with a population of about 31.4 million, has just 30 golf courses, seven of which have been closed by the government. Of 23 now open, 12 are 9-hole layouts.

The Foundation also reports just 53 certified teaching pros in Venezuela, only 240 junior golfers and 13 driving ranges.

By comparison, the Greater Richmond area alone has more courses, pros, juniors and ranges.

Vegas got ahead by getting out.

In 2002, he moved to Houston to live with former Venezuelan golfer Franci Betancourt. Given the opportunity, he earned a scholarship to the University of Texas, where he played Longhorns golf and earned a degree in kinesiology.

He turned pro in 2008 and served as an apprentice on the Web.com Tour before moving to the PGA’s top circuit full time this season, where he has been peaking in recent weeks and months.

As his career’s crowning moment, Vegas won the RBC Canadian Open in Ontario with a 12-under 276, worth $1,062,000.

On July 31, he picked up $75,636 by finishing 10 strokes behind winner Jimmy Walker at the PGA Championship in Springfield, N.J.

On July 17, he tied for fourth at the Barbasol Championship in Auburn, Ala. On May 1, he tied for fifth at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans.

Overall, Vegas ranks No. 81 in the world and No. 26 in the PGA FedEx Cup standings.

Among all PGA players, he is third at hitting greens in regulation (70.1 percent) and 11th in driving distance (304.9 yards).

He also is another rare person of color in an overwhelmingly white sport. With Tiger Woods sidelined, the lone African-American on the circuit is rookie Harold Varner III.

Vegas, who will turn 32 during the Olympics, has proven his PGA worth.

On a world stage in Rio, he hopes to show there’s more to Venezuela than baseball and beauty queens.