Vegas's win proves point to Chavez

Mon, 24 Jan 18:36:00 2011

Venezuelan golfers hailed compatriot Jhonattan Vegas's US PGA Tour win as a big advance for their sport in the baseball-obsessed nation and proof socialist leader Hugo Chavez's disparagement of golf was misplaced.

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The 26-year-old Vegas, who learned golf thanks to his father's job as a caddy, won a first US PGA title in only his fifth start after a playoff for the Bob Hope Classic on Sunday.

"I'd never heard such commotion," said Carlos Whaite, executive director of Venezuela's golf federation, who watched Vegas's triumph on TV with scores of excited kids and other golf fans after a children's competition in Caracas.

"This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to Venezuelan golf beyond our borders," Whaite said.

Unlike most of football-mad South America, the all-consuming national sport here is baseball, which was first introduced to the country by U.S. oilmen.

Golf, by contrast, is a niche game which the firebrand Chavez denounces as a "bourgeois" sport played on land that would be better used to build houses for slum-dwellers.

Half a dozen courses have been closed in recent years, and the president has urged golf clubs to give up land to pitch tents for families made homeless by floods late last year.

Julio Torres, who runs a national golf school, said Vegas's relatively poor roots and dark skin in race-conscious Venezuela showed that golf was not just a sport for the rich.

"We want the people in government who still don't like golf to realize that it's not like that," he told Reuters.

"He (Vegas) is of humble extraction, is coloured, and has made it into the big leagues of golf through hard work," he said.

Vegas's triumph briefly displaced baseball headlines in Venezuela sports sections on Monday, adding to a growing sporting feel-good factor after another local boy, Pastor Maldonado, recently made it into Formula One.

Those who have known and watched Vegas from an early age said his talent was obvious.

"I wouldn't say it's a surprise that he's won, just that it came so soon," Torres said.

Born in the eastern city of Maturin, Vegas began playing at the age of two on a course run by an oil company, before moving to the United States in 2002. He graduated from Texas University and turned professional in 2008.

The first and only US PGA Tour player from Venezuela, long-hitting Vegas clinched his maiden title on the US circuit on Sunday in a gripping three-way playoff with Americans Gary Woodland and Bill Haas.

He became the first rookie to win the event in 52 years, after making a miraculous par at the second extra hole, and he said he hoped his breakthrough would attract more players to the game in his homeland.

"I really hope it means change, people changing (their view) about the sport," he said, adding that a putting session with his father Carlos after Saturday's fourth round had helped calm him down.

The ever-smiling Vegas earned a $900,000 winner's cheque, and an invitation to this year's US Masters.


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