Vegas trying to put Venezuela on the golf map

070111-400-sm6smal
Jhonattan Vegas, a native of Venezuela, is one shot off the lead at the AT&T National. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

JHONATTAN VEGAS has some explaining to do.

In February, he tied for 19th at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Cancun, Mexico, and reporters from his native Venezuela wanted to know what went wrong.

After all, it had only been a month since Vegas made history by becoming the first Venezuelan-born player to win on the PGA Tour when he won the Bob Hope Classic in a playoff.

"People kept asking me, 'Why did you finish 19th? What a horrible week,' " Vegas said yesterday after shooting a 3-under-par 67, one shot off the lead, in the first round of the AT & T National at Aronimink Golf Club. "I was like, 'Really?' "

"It's difficult explaining to people back home what golf is and that finishing in the top 20 is not the end of the world. It's a good thing."

It will take a little more educating for people in Venezuela to understand that, for Vegas, a rookie on the PGA Tour, winning in only his fifth career start was a remarkable thing.

The nature of the game dictates that there will be many more finishes around 19th than at the top of the leaderboard.

And that would be for a player with an outstanding career.

A player who consistently places in the top 20, with some wins sprinkled in here and there, probably will earn around $30 million to $40 million in a normal career.

A lot of PGA golfers - I mean a lot - have stuck around for a long time doing far less.

Vegas, 26, said that after his historic win, he has spent so much time trying to explain the intricacies of the sport that his game has suffered.

"Being a foreign player, especially from a country that has no idea about golf, the demands can be tough," Vegas said. "That's something I've had to deal with, and it's been taking a lot of my time.

"The thing I started to realize after a few weeks of playing horrible is that mentally you can get really worn out if you are not careful, having to deal with so many things with the media back home and explaining what golf is about.

"I'm taking it as it goes, being a little more patient and just trying to focus on myself a little bit more."

Imagine being from a land where one victory has your countrymen believing you are suddenly the next Tiger Woods, when you're actually just beginning to cut your teeth on the Tour.

Imagine the expectations placed when a good finish is confusingly viewed as bad.

"Everyone is really excited, but at the same time it could be really a negative because [Venezuelans] don't have knowledge about the game," Vegas said. "Sometimes you get asked questions that are just out of this world."

Vegas' story is actually Tiger Woods-ish in its improbability.

Woods learned golf playing on the public courses in Southern California.

Vegas started playing with his father using a broomstick and a rock in his hometown of Maturin.

The first course he played was a nine-hole layout built for oil-camp employees for recreation.

"We don't have a lot of golf courses [in Venezuela], and to play golf there is tough," Vegas said. "We probably have two or three championship golf course, and they're not to a level like [Aronimink]. They're not even close.

"It's hard to really get better being down there."

Vegas' coach in Venezuela was Franci Betancourt, who was a three-time World Cup participant for Venezuela.

In 2002, after finishing high school, Vegas traveled to Houston and moved in with Betancourt.

Vegas played golf at the University of Texas and was a 4-year letterman.

In 2003, he qualified for his first PGA event - the Shell Houston Open. He missed the cut.

He won the Venezuela National Amateur in 2006 and turned professional in 2008. He played in the 2008 Valero Texas Open and made his first PGA cut.

Vegas spent 2009 and 2010 on the Nationwide Tour, playing in 41 events and making 25 cuts. He won an event, had 15 Top 25 finishes and earned almost $432,000.

He graduated from the Nationwide Tour, having played in only three PGA Tour events.

In his rookie PGA season, Vegas has played 17 events, made 10 cuts, had two top-10 finishes and earned a little more than $1.5 million.

He is 24th in the FedEx Cup standings, which is actually 90 spots higher than Woods.

"Are they going to give me a parade?" Vegas said, "I don't think so. I'm not a baseball player. If I had won the World Series, it would be a little different.

"But there's a lot of excitement. It's always good for a country to have, I guess, a player do something on the biggest stage there is in golf.

"If [possible], I'm going to do great here on the PGA Tour for a long time and really try to push the game in South America, especially Venezuela, where I know there is other talent. If we put a lot of that talent in the game, we could have a lot of great golfers."

Golfers whom Venezuelans will be proud of because they finished in the top 20.

Send email to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/Smallwood.