Jhonattan Vegas has a chance of victory on Sunday in his adopted home Houston. The 37-year-old Venezuelan shot in the third round of the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open with 2 under 68 and is one stroke behind leader Scottie Scheffler.
What a story it would be if Vegas lifted the trophy on Sunday – 20 years after leaving Venezuela at the age of 17 and knowing all 10 words of English. Hugo Chavez, the president of his country, treated golf like a frivolous pursuit of the upper class and began closing golf courses across the country. Vegas was a toddler swinging a broom when it first showed promise for golf. He broke a window but soon completed a makeshift nine-hole course built for employees of the oil company his father worked for. He won his country’s junior and amateur titles and showed enough promise to compete in the World Junior Golf Championships in San Diego, finishing sixth in Torrey Pines.
Vegas refused to let politics prevent him from pursuing his dream of becoming a professional golfer. Even if that meant leaving his family and living with former Venezuelan national coach Franci Betancourt, his wife and a few other talented young golfers who encounter similar opposition.
“Let me tell you it’s not easy to get out of the house, especially at a young age,” Vegas told Golfweek a few years ago.
He learned English well enough to pass his TOEFL exam and his game developed under the watchful eyes of Betancourt and instructor Kevin Kirk, 2019 PGA Instructor of the Year, at the nearby Cypresswood Golf Course. Vegas upheld all of that raw promise when he qualified for a spot in the 2003 Houston Open at the age of 18 on Monday.
Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open: Results | Route book | photos
“Oh my god, probably the biggest memory I have as a tour player, I remember just going into that locker room and seeing all the guys there,” he said. “I remember Vijay, Freddie, Phil. I mean whatever, they played this week. As an 18-year-old, just being there and feeling it, seeing these guys and feeling the energy of a lot of these guys playing on tour and they were in their best shape, that really got me very excited about golf. “
It also caught the attention of University of Texas golf coach, John Fields, and resulted in a college scholarship. Vegas made it through the first leg of the 2008 PGA Tour Q-School in Houston en route to becoming the first Venezuelan member of the PGA Tour and is still at home in Southeast Texas.
“I definitely feel like a Houstonian,” said Vegas. “The city has hugged me since I came from Venezuela. It would be great to share a home title with everyone here in Houston. As I said, it will be up there, if not the greatest benefit for me. “
Vegas has made eleven starts in Houston and has never finished in the top 10 at the event, but has found Memorial Park more to his liking than the former home of the tournament (Golf Club of Houston) and leads the field in Strokes Gained: Off the tea. at (3,387) and so far three rounds in the 60s. Vegas has won three times on the tour, most recently at the 2017 RBC Canadian Open, and finished second three times in the 2020/21 season. On Saturday he made three of the first four holes with birdies and at some point shared the lead before bogeys on numbers 14 and 16, where his second shot at the par-5 had no chance of clearing the water.
Photos: 2021 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open at Memorial Park Golf Course
“I tried to hit a hard 4 iron, obviously hard into the water. Disappointing, ”he said. “I hit him in the water yesterday, today I hit him in the water. It’s just not a comfortable hole for me and I just have to try to get it over with as best I can and move on. “
But he rebounded with a birdie at 17, clamped himself to 15 feet and punched the putt to get back to 7-under 203 and part of a five-way tie for second. Vegas said he would enjoy sleeping in his own bed and playing in a city that did him so good.
“It was fun to play in front of a home crowd,” he said. “To have the audience and the support was just amazing.”