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Camilo Villegas is in a blessed state
The 41-year-old has resurrected his PGA Tour career and is stronger as a result of some low personal and professional struggles
:: Gary Van Sickle
St. Simons Island, Georgia — It would’ve been hard to miss the recent comeback story of Camilo Villegas, a former young phenom golfer from Colombia who played his way onto the PGA Tour in short order and looked as if he might become a superstar.
He was originally best known for his “Spiderman” nickname for his habit of getting down to grass level to line up his putt while holding himself up so his body didn’t touch the grass.
I’m pretty sure he developed that simply as a method to keep his clothes from getting soiled by the ground — he wore a lot of white and pink pants in those days, was always very well dressed, and was blessed with male-model looks. He didn’t want a dirt smudge on his shirt to ruin his look.
Villegas won the 2008 BMW Championship and the Tour Championship, but lost the FedEx Cup title to Vijay Singh. He later had some injury issues that led to swing issues. He played his way off the Tour. He got married to Maria, he had a beautiful daughter, Mia, who battled brain and spine tumors and died after a 22-month struggle. They now have a son, Mateo, who was born in 2021.
Villegas returned to the Korn Ferry Tour, worked on swing changes, started slowly playing better, begged a sponsor’s invitation from the Butterfield Bermuda Championship and won the event, earning his way back to the PGA Tour nine years after his last victory. He came to the RSM Classic this week with nothing to prove and much to be thankful for.
Villegas met with reporters on Wednesday at the Sea Island Golf Club and spoke about his life and what he has learned in his 41 years. He was so eloquent, there is no reason to clutter up his words with extra copy. Here are the highlights of what Villegas had to say:
Life is a journey and it goes up and down. Pretty interesting. I go back to that Colombian kid that came here with a dream, played college golf at the University of Florida, played the Korn Ferry in 2005 and then everything gets started on Tour so great, playing Augusta my second year on Tour, winning a couple FedEx Cup Playoff [tournaments] in 2008. Yeah, you would think that that kid was on top of the world. And I was. I was feeling pretty good from a performance point of view.
But I look at where I am right now and everything that has happened, I truly believe I'm a better person. Maybe the results haven't been there, but this journey has been pretty interesting. To lose my card, to go through an injury, to lose my daughter, to create Mia's Miracles, to go back to the Korn Ferry, to keep grinding, to have doubts, to have fears, to have tears, have smiles, all of the above. You just never know where life goes.
But with all those things and all those doubts and all the ups and downs, I never stopped waking up early, 5:00, 5:30 in the morning, to do what I like to do.
The really cool thing about the last two weeks is not so much the results of the last two weeks, but the process and what's been behind those results. I had 900 messages on my phone. I'm going to get to all of them sometime. Yeah, once again, it's a process. It's enjoying the fact that I want to get better every morning. A lot of people asked me what I was doing going back to the Korn Ferry Tour and I said, listen, I want to play golf on the PGA Tour and the Korn Ferry Tour is what's going to get me to the PGA Tour.
I had a chance to play the Korn Ferry Tour in 2005 and that's what got me to the PGA Tour, so that's where I need to be. And I enjoyed this year there being with the younger guys and different places, different courses. I missed my card on the Korn Ferry Tour because I was doing a lot of swing changes and stuff and they weren't kicking in. And I kept trusting my instructor. He told me it was going to take a long time, and it did, but here we are.
This story and everything, it's special. I'm proud of myself, I'm proud of those early mornings, I'm proud of my wife, I'm proud of Mia's Miracles, I'm proud of Mia, how she battled for those five months, for the energy she gives us and I'm proud of the journey of life.
What's to come, who knows? Life goes in circles but I'm going to continue to do the same thing. I'm going to continue to wake up in the morning, I'm going to continue to give it my best, treat people the right way and I think when you do that, you can see how happy people get when you get results. It's been unbelievable being here this week. All my peers just come and gave me a hug, telling me how they were watching, how they were pulling for me. We'll do it all over again (this week).
The RSM Birdies Fore Love has been a very special program for us. It's touched us personally, and it's touched those that are benefited by Mia's Miracles. Patrick Rodgers finished second last year in the overall and donated to Mia's Miracles. [The players have] been kind enough, they know the work that my wife is doing and to the team just to provide smiles to those in need and I'm very grateful for that.
Yesterday, I was supposed to tee it up in second stage of PGA Tour Q School. I wasn't going to be able to be here but my wife was going to be here Monday night. She was going to do a little event. She was going to speak about our foundation and she was going to tell the story of how RSM Birdies Fore Love has impacted and benefited our foundation and the people that we help.
Things changed in Mexico after I moved up to 147 in the FedEx Cup points list, I didn't have to go to second stage of Q School. I called Todd Thompson, the [RSM Classic] tournament director, and I said, “Todd, no bull----, I'm calling you because I don't want to be there, I need to be there. So I don't know how your sponsor exemptions are looking, but I need to be there.” He was laughing, he said I'll call you tomorrow.
The next day he very quickly confirmed a spot for me and then what happened last week happened. [Villegas won.] So I go from not being in the field to being a sponsor invite to being in the field as a champion. That's pretty cool.
We finally landed in Jacksonville after a long day. I hop in the car and I'm rushing to get to The Cloisters to attend the RSM Birdies Fore Love reception. My wife is there waiting for me. It was cool to share our story. It was very nice to see what this program has done, how much money they've donated. They've raised over $5 million. This country's unbelievable when it comes to charity. We've had a chance to experience it and live it ourselves and we'll continue to open our hearts to help others to grow, to partner with hopefully RSM and the Birdies Fore Love program, keep bringing smiles.
So I have my Mia's Miracles first tournament last year. Todd Lewis (Golf Channel commentator) was very gracious to send us some flags of major champions to us, and Steve Sands was there to help us emcee. I'm never going to forget, I'm on the ninth fairway, Steve shows up in another cart, he looks at me, he says, “Hey, by the way, your name has come up on the Golf Channel a few times. Do you want to be in the booth one week?” I told him to f-off. Literally, like that. I said, “Man, I'm not ready, I want to play.”
My reaction was because yes, I'm 41, yes, I have been playing terrible golf, yes, you don't know where you're heading, but I enjoy playing, I enjoy trying to get better. I wasn't ready for that. Called him up the same night and I said, “It's an honor for me that you guys are thinking about me. I mean, English is not even my first language and it's probably because you guys have seen how I've handled my career and how I've gone about business that you believe that maybe I could do a good job. So it's actually an honor, but I'm still not ready for that.” Then we go to my agent, Clarke Jones, and he goes, “Listen, bud, I'm not here to close doors. If you really want me to close this door, I will, but if not, you need to give us a week. Just pick the week next year, I'll try to arrange.”
So I picked Wyndham, last regular season event of the year, a place where I have great memories where I won in 2014, a golf course that I really know, a week that I knew there was going to be a lot to talk, which made it easier but harder, and we jumped in the booth. Jumped in the booth that first day, producer goes, “OK, how about we do a little rehearsal, 40-second opening,” and holy crap, did I get nervous. I was scared.
We survived that first day. It wasn't my best effort, but I also have to say that everybody that I asked for advice, they kept telling me, just be yourself, be yourself. Then when I was getting ready to start, I go, “What does ‘be yourself’ mean?” But after the first day, the producer and my colleagues and Steve and everybody gave me some pointers. Second day I felt a lot better. Third day I felt even better. I stayed afterwards, after the early show, to watch the big boys, how they run the show. It was pretty cool to see the other crew doing what they know how to do. I learned a lot, I really enjoyed it.
The comments were great. Nobody's going to look at you in the face and say, “Listen, you sucked, it was terrible,” but I got a lot of great comments.
As human beings, we're evolving and we're always different, so to try to be the same guy that you were is tricky. You have different information, you're older, you have different experiences, so it's really hard to go back. When I finally accepted that, that Camilo Villegas was not the 27-something-year-old that won two FedEx Cup Playoff [tournaments] in 2008, but he's the Camilo Villegas of 38, 40, 41 years old and he's dealing with the information and the experiences he has, that's when I decided not to look back so much but just to stay in the present and see what I could work with. It's been very helpful.
Of course we're different, just look at the picture from 2008, long hair, 20-something-year-old wearing pink pants. Now my outfits are completely different. I'm a dad. So many bumps, but so many great things.
They were asking me this morning also about, it was actually pretty cool, they said, hey, what a tough life and everything you guys have had to go through as a family and the personal, as an injury, as a golfer playing on the PGA Tour, being top-10 in the world, losing your card, all this stuff. That's got to be pretty tough. Started thinking about that, that question. It wasn't resonating what they were telling me because to be honest, with everything that has happened, that's just life. That's how life goes.
I'm so fortunate. I mean, I'm so fortunate to have the life I have. This kid coming from Colombia going to the University of Florida, accomplishing the dreams playing on the PGA Tour. Then yes, there were bumps, but that's life. Yes, I wish my little one was here with us, but she's not and she's truly in a better place after a long battle that she wasn't going to win. So I accepted that, too. And we keep going.
We turned that tragedy into something very positive. I mean, my wife reads me messages from people we help on Mia's Miracles every week. I go, Man, if Mia was here, we wouldn't be able to do this. You turn it around. My life has been great with the ups, with the downs, I accept it.