Camilo villegaswears a quizzical look as he steps from the scorer’s trailer after the secondround of the Shell Houston Open. The PGA Tour rookie has just shot anuninspiring 72 on the Tournament course at the Redstone Golf Club, putting himin danger of missing the cut. Yet charging toward him with lights on andmicrophones extended come four television crews and a team from a satelliteradio station. “I shot even par,” he confesses to one of the reporters,clearly embarrassed by attention so incommensurate with his play. ¬∂”Hey,” the interviewer shoots back, “you’re a rock star now.” ¬∂Like the cameras, the exalted status has moved in quickly on Villegas, and the24-year-old Colombian has been taken by surprise. Five months removed from hisonly season on the Nationwide tour, Villegas (pronounced Bee-JAY-gas) hasbecome the breakout star of the class of 2006, putting together three top fivefinishes, including ties for second at the FBR Open and the Ford Championshipat Doral–where his final-round duel with Tiger Woods received plenty ofairtime–and a tie for third at the Players Championship that left him a strokeshort of playing his way into the Masters. During that run Villegas gave golffans a glimpse of everything he has to offer: the movie-star looks, the rippedbiceps, the flashy clothes and the 300-yard drives. What they also saw, overand over again, was the bizarre, arachnid way he crouches to read putts. Astrange hybrid of a yoga pose and a push-up, the move has earned Villegas theone thing he was missing: a handle. Now, in his home country, he is known as ElHombre Ara√±a–Spiderman.
Rock star,superhero–choose whichever analogy you prefer. The point is, Villegas’s playand persona have him poised as a crossover attraction ripe for the MTV crowdand the most beautiful people lists. In one key demographic he has alreadyemerged. All week at Doral, Miami’s large Latin American population suppliedVillegas with massive galleries, and back home his countrymen flocked to the TVto watch his Sunday tangle with El Tígre in numbers usually reserved for theColombian national soccer team. Thirty Spanish-speaking journalists showed upfor that final round, and the following morning Villegas made the front pagesof his homeland’s six largest dailies. Because of El Hombre Ara√±a, Colombiancable channel City TV has signed on to carry the remainder of the 2006 Tourschedule. “Camilo’s impact has been tremendous,” says Manuel de laRosa, the president of the Federación Colombiana de Golf. “He’s doing forgolf here what Juan Pablo Montoya did for Formula One racing, which wasestablish a tradition and create a huge following.” Amid the jingle of cashregisters and the blare of publicity, one question has remained largelyunanswered: Who’s the kid beneath the mask?
Camilo and hisbrother, Manuel, 21, a redshirt sophomore at Florida, from which Camilograduated in 2004, were born to hard-working, middle-class parents, Fernandoand Luz Marina Restrepo. They grew up in Medellín, a city of 2.9 millionnestled in the Aburrà valley in Colombia’s mountainous coffee-growing region.”We’re architects,” says Luz. “We’ve done well at times but alsohad our share of economic difficulties. If it weren’t for our sons’ golf[scholarships], we wouldn’t have been able to send them to a university in theU.S.”
Fernando, an avidsportsman, was Colombia’s 1980 national champion in Trials riding, a form ofmotocross that requires strength and balance. That explains Camilo’s firstlove: BMX biking. When he was about six, he and 14 buddies pooled their moneyand built a track behind the apartment complex where they lived. Endlesswheelies and scraped knees resulted, as did a certain fearlessness andself-confidence that Camilo would carry from the dirt track to the fairway.
His first exposureto golf came the same year he built the track, when he walked hand in hand withhis father along the nine-hole Club Campestre de Medellín, a hilly course inthe middle of the city. Camilo didn’t play that day, but when he finally pickedup a club, he showed the kind of determination that would serve him well lateron. “Once when I was playing,” Fernando recalls, “Camilo laggedbehind in a sand trap and, using a brand-new Ping four-wood he had borrowedfrom my caddie, he whacked away in the bunker until he had ruined theclub.” Intrigued by the sport, the intense little kid began tagging alongwith Rojelio Gonàlez, the club pro, carrying his towel and water and mimickinghis swing.
Under Gonàlez’stutelage Camilo grew to become a top amateur and traveled the world withColombia’s junior national team. Then Medellín native Camilo Benedetti, ateammate two years his senior and a member of the golf team at Florida,introduced Villegas to Gators coach Buddy Alexander.
“That was ourlucky Colombian connection,” says Alexander. During Villegas’s freshmanseason, in 2000-01, the two Camilos fueled Florida’s drive to an NCAAchampionship. Villegas was named first-team All-America and Benedetti madesecond-team all-SEC. What shocked Alexander about his second Colombian find wasVillegas’s six-month transformation from scrawny freshman to buff,hard-driving, team-leading sophomore. “He constantly stayed later and didextra work in the weight room,” says Alexander. “There were times whenI had to get him to tone back on the amount that he was lifting.” The coachwatched the 5’9″ Villegas pack on 20 pounds, to 160. “When he got here,he looked as if he could become a very good player,” says Alexander.”But it wasn’t until he hit the weight room and got a lot stronger and alot longer that he became a force.”
Villegas wasequally obsessive about other parts of his life. He graduated with a major inbusiness, a 3.78 GPA and was a two-time academic All-America. He still lives inGainesville, where he shares an apartment with Manuel. “When you walk intohis closet, you don’t see any dirty laundry lying on the floor,” Manuelsays of his brother. “His pants and shirts are hung neatly incolor-coordinated rows, and the hanger hooks are pointed in the samedirection.” Camilo, who’s been asked ad nauseam about his compulsiveness,says simply, “Hey, I like to know where my things are.”
Obsessive tendencies can be counter productive in golf. “Camilo is aperfectionist,” says Alexander, who keeps several of Villegas’smeticulously crafted college yardage books in his office to show to youngGators golfers. “That’s a double-edged sword. He can be too hard onhimself.” When Villegas walked off the 72nd green after finishing second atFebruary’s FBR, he wasn’t pumped about his best performance ever. Rather, hewas disgusted with his putting. Since then there’s been a marked improvement.Before the FBR, Villegas was ranked 144th on Tour in putting average. Todayhe’s improved to 83rd. “Now I try to be creative and have a nice flow whenI get on the green,” Villegas says. If he can get the putter working,there’s no limit for Villegas, as he ranks fourth in driving distance (307.7yards), behind fellow rookie phenoms Bubba Watson (318.5) and J.B. Holmes(310.8), and Tag Ridings (309.2). He is also a skilled shot maker. “Camilohas a short, compact swing,” says Alexander. “He hasn’t had a whole lotof instruction, so [his technique is] not very complicated ortechnical.”
Like any goodsuperhero, Villegas has a bold Spiderman trait to offset every mild-manneredPeter Parker tic. He may color-coordinate his belt with his shoes in theprivacy of his bedroom, but on the course there’s nothing button-down abouthim. As he puts it, “I like to go at pins.” Some observers feelVillegas could benefit from toning down his aggressive play, but that’s not inhis nature.
Villegas goesfull-throttle in other ways too. The speed limit on the Gainesville campus is20 mph, and Villegas would buzz around on his Yamaha Zuma at twice that clip.”He got pulled over on his scooter by the campus police a few times,”Benedetti says. What else? “Camilo liked to drink hard and have fun.”Villegas exhibited a bit of that attitude and personality as he approached the8th tee at March’s Honda Classic. An inebriated fan yelled, “Hey, Camilo,you want a cerveza?” “I need two,” Villegas shot back, sending aripple of laughter through his gallery. “One for my caddie too.”
When he’s back in Colombia, Villegas’s idea of a good time is zapping over to Lake Ayapel, a40-minute plane ride from Medellín, where he might blast about on a jet ski orhelp pilot his best friend’s plane, a small two-seater. Jet skis and airplanesare more likely playthings in Colombia than golf clubs. There are only 55courses nationwide, and the only other Tour-caliber golfer is former BYUstandout Eduardo Herrera. Villegas wants to change that. He hopes to become hiscountry’s golf ambassador. But it’s uphill all the way. Public courses areuncommon throughout South America, and in Bogotà, the capital of Colombia, thefirst public driving range didn’t open until 2004.
Colombia, especially Medellín, is better known as a center of the South American drugtrade. Most of the country’s largest cities, including Medellín and Bogotà,have become markedly safer in the past few years, but it’s still best to stayoff the back-country roads and to fly from region to region. Some of Villegas’sfriends drive with handguns in their glove compartments. He doesn’t. “Thatwould invite trouble,” he says. “There are places you need to steerclear of, but it’s the same in some neighborhoods in New York.”
Neither isVillegas afraid to trade off the country’s image. In a new spot for Cobra,which will appear soon, David Feherty asks Villegas how he hits the ball sofar. Spoofing the most notorious drug trafficker in cinematic history–AlPacino in Scarface–Villegas holds up the head of a Speed Series Cobra driverand says, “Say hello to my not-so-little friend.” (Ignore for a momentthat Pacino’s character in the movie was Cuban.)
The commercialreinforces how much Villegas has become a symbol of his country. “I knowthere are a lot of expectations,” he says, “especially in Colombia. Buthey, I’m here to have fun and learn. I’m playing against the best players inthe world, and I have to be really patient.”
In Houston,Villegas did in fact make the cut and hung around, much to the delight of themany female fans in his gallery, to finish 59th. Like the cameras and thesuperhero nicknames, such distractions are ever-present now, but Villegasdoesn’t seem to be buying into the hype. “Is that going to make me a bettergolfer?” he asks. “No. Am I going to make a living from that? No. Thebottom line is, you have to play good golf.” ♦