Venezuela’s Vegas Continues Olympics dream
When Jhonattan Vegas was 18, he rubbed shoulders with world-class players like Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples while competing in the Vivint Houston Open in his adopted hometown in Texas. It’s fair to say it was an important moment for the teenager from Venezuela.
“All these big names were there, and I started watching those guys and comparing a little bit to the stuff that I was doing at that time,” Vegas recalls. “I knew that I had the potential to eventually win on TOUR, and I think that knowing that of myself, it's probably what carried me all of this way.”
‘This way’ would be Vegas’ description of where he is now after his journey to become a three-time PGA TOUR winner and two-time Olympic athlete.
“Everyone dreams about the Olympics,” said Vegas, the first Venezuelan golfer to compete in the Olympics (2016 in Brazil) who is also set to compete again this year in Japan. “Instead of playing for yourself, you’ve got the whole country behind you. It’s more than just being a golfer playing another event. It’s being part of the Olympics, the biggest sporting event in the world.”
Venezuela first sent athletes to compete in the Summer Olympic Games in 1948 and the country has been represented at every Olympics since. During that period, their athletes have captured 15 medals, including two golds – boxing and fencing – but what if Vegas were to medal in golf?
“Ooh, it would be something unique,” Vegas said. “Just to give your country that joy, give your country a medal. Venezuela doesn’t have a ton of medals, so to have the chance to give them one would be awesome.”
In just his second start as a rookie on the PGA TOUR, Vegas claimed The American Express in 2011 in Palm Springs, California, with a playoff victory over Bill Haas and Gary Woodland. To prove it was no fluke, Vegas backed it up with a tie for third at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego the following week, making history at Torrey Pines by becoming the first rookie to hold the lead in the FedExCup, the season-long points competition established in 2007.
“It was probably one of my biggest wins as a professional golfer, just the simple fact that I had been dreaming to get to the PGA TOUR and then the year before earning the card to get here and literally a few weeks later earning a PGA TOUR win,” Vegas said of his first victory. “It was obviously a big week in my life, a week that I remember pretty much everything that happened.”
Vegas picked up the game playing with a broomstick and a rock in his native Venezuela and began playing at a nine-hole course near his home built for oil-camp employees. He became an outstanding junior golfer before heading to the University of Texas in 2002, as an 18-year-old who knew very little English.
Longhorn golf coach John Fields first caught a glimpse of Vegas in a Junior World Golf Championships at Torrey Pines in San Diego where Vegas finished sixth.
“I saw this young man who had these physical characteristics that were just sensational,” Fields said. “He had a golf swing reminiscent of Tiger (Woods) and mostly God-given talent.”
After turning professional in 2008 and experiencing ups and downs like almost every professional athlete, including shoulder surgery in 2012, Vegas established himself as a star of the future with a victory at the 2016 RBC Canadian Open. Later that year, he competed at the Olympics in Brazil.
“Being in that big of a stage and wearing your colors and playing for your country, that’s a lot of fun,” Vegas said. “It’s probably one of the biggest moments for an athlete.”
Vegas just kept improving. Highlights from 2017 included a hole-in-one to win a car at The Honda Classic, defending his RBC title in Canada, earning a spot on the International Team at the Presidents Cup, and finishing a career-high No. 23 in the FedExCup.
“He’s an incredible talent,” said Nick Price, the Presidents Cup International Team Captain when Vegas qualified for the team in 2017. “He was an asset to our team with his effervescent personality and attitude.”
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, one of Vegas’ Presidents Cup teammates, was impressed with the Venezuelan and certainly identifies with the challenges Vegas faced when he came to America.
“First of all, Jhonny is a great golfer. He can hit it a mile and has an awesome touch on the greens,” Matsuyama said. “Plus, he has a warm and friendly personality. I really enjoyed getting to know him better at the President Cup. Learning any foreign language is tough, especially when most of the day is spent on the course or in the gym. By the time you get back to the hotel, you’re so tired that it’s hard to study.”
Vegas gained international exposure at the 2019 PLAYERS Championship when his birdie putt from 69 feet, 7 inches broke the record for the longest putt in history on the famous No. 17 island green at TPC Sawgrass. He went on to finish tied for third in the prestigious tournament.
Moving ahead to 2021, Vegas has posted two runner-up finishes on TOUR this season as he prepares for Tokyo and his second Olympics. His profile has grown, not just in his native country but around the globe. As the first Venezuelan on the PGA TOUR and the country’s first golf representative at the Olympics, he feels a responsibility to promote the sport on the international stage.
“It’s (Olympics) one of the biggest ways we can grow the game, especially in countries that don’t really know about the PGA TOUR,” Vegas said. “It’s extra motivation to perform better, move the game to a different level. You want to build a legacy and create something for the next generation to live up to.”
Winning an Olympic medal would be a dream come true for Vegas.
“I truly believe that I'm a dreamer, and I want to keep dreaming,” said Vegas. “Probably later in my career I'll sit back and say, ‘Well I maybe had a pretty good career.’”