CAMILO Villegas may be an overnight sensation in this part of the world thanks to Friday’s record-breaking second round of 65 that started with two bogeys and ended with an incredible sequence of five birdies, but in America the 26-year-old is already a household name. In Miami, where he’s based, the Colombian is so popular with Florida’s Hispanic population that he draws bigger crowds than Tiger Woods, a fact that he embraces. Villegas, you see, has star quality, and he knows it.
Such is the regard in which he is held by his countrymen that when he made his US PGA debut, Colombian television screened the Tour for the first time ever and was rewarded with unprecedented viewing figures. And he’s made a huge splash Stateside, too.
A fitness fanatic with a mullet that makes him look like a refugee from an Eighties boy band, he dresses like Ian Poulter, drives likes Tiger and has the mass appeal of Latino boxing deity Oscar de la Hoya. He was famous at university for his sense of fun and adventure, whether it was for his habit of pulling mile-long wheelies on his motorbike or for his racket of selling “recycled” balls from a nearby golf range, an entrepreneurial scheme which eventually saw Villegas (or “Grandpa” to his friends) and his room-mate Manny get busted late one night. He even has his own trademark nickname – the “Hombre Araña” or “Spiderman” – which he gained for his bizarre habit of looking down the line of putts from a contorted press-up-style stance. Whenever he crouched down yesterday, the crowd cheered and there were chants of “In the hole Spiderman!” Merseyside, at least, is a fan.
That much was obvious from the moment he stepped onto the tee yesterday, and the crowd at Birkdale continued to roar him to the heavens every time he gave them the slightest excuse. If that wasn’t as often as the day before, then that was little surprise on a day when the wind gusted to 45mph, howling so venomously at one stage that it looked as if play might have to be suspended. Villegas responded by hitting the ball flat and long off the tee, a strategy that worked well, especially when compared to his playing partner, the wayward Rocco Mediate. But if Villegas was good off the tee, his lack of ambition and precision in his approach shots cost him dear. Where he was hitting every green in regulation on Friday and putting for birdies, yesterday he was scrambling to save par, which he failed to do four times in the outward half alone, following that with a double bogey at the 10th.
Yet no matter where he finishes, Villegas has demonstrated that he has all the necessary skills to survive the circus that is pro golf. He has the instinctive skills of a veteran diplomat and knows how to avoid making the wrong sort of headlines. Despite the fact that he now can’t return to his home town of Medellin for fear of being kidnapped after amassing career prize money of £2m and even more in endorsements, he straight-bats all difficult questions alluding to his homeland’s drug and insurgent issues. “I love Colombia, I love my country,” he parrots time and again. Off the course, it seems, he has it all.
He’s pretty sharp after he hits the first tee, too. The son of an architect, he comes from a middle-class family that was wealthy enough to be able to afford the extortionate membership fees for one of Colombia’s 50 golf courses. Once behind its gilded gates he quickly established himself as a prodigy and was whisked off on a golf scholarship to Miami, where his feats eclipsed even those of alumni such as Chris DiMarco.
If Villegas was born with the raw materials for golfing greatness, the Colombian has provided the work ethic that has converted talent and potential into results. His driving is a case in point. Just 5ft 9in, when he arrived in Miami he weighed less than 10 stone, so he lived in the gym, putting on almost two stone of muscle. With his double-jointed action and explosive whiplash swing, he can now hit the ball a metaphorical mile – his average drive in 2006 was over 300 yards, big even by the rip-it-and-hit-it standards of the US College circuit.
With a short game that is average and putting that is well below mediocre at this level – he was the 111th best putter on the Tour last year – that power off the tee and his unquenchable will to win are his chief weapons. It’s a combination that makes his success at wind-lashed Birkdale all the more remarkable because this is a course where virtually every par-four and par-five hole contains a power-negating dogleg that places a premium on accuracy and has seen almost every player take an iron or a three-wood off the tee this week. The difference between his first round and his second was simply down to his putting – he took 34 putts on Thursday and 23 on Friday – and you get the sense that if he could putt like Tiger as well as drive like him, then he would soon become a regular Major contender.
Yet those who know him well are in no doubt that he is one of the game’s coming men. He might dress from head to foot in J Lindeberg haute couture and wear drainpipe trousers held up with a snakeskin belt, but looks can be deceptive. He is a quick learner – this is his first tournament on a links course as a professional, his only previous experience being two amateur events and a warm-up round on Tuesday with Greg Norman – but he has an intensely competitive streak that gives him a willingness to grind out results. It was this that saw him start his rookie year with two seconds and a third at The Players Championship in his first nine events, and it was that which saw him grind his way up the leaderboard to finish in ninth place behind winner Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines in this year’s US Open.
“Sergio will win a Major, but Camilo might just get there first,” says CBC commentator David Feherty. “He has that Latin bravado that Seve had, he has the swing, and he wants to be there in the big moments. He welcomes it. He’s not content to just make a few million and get laid, which describes most players out there. He’s got that ego you need to be great. He reminds me of Tiger. They both have this hunger.”
The comparisons with Tiger are clearly premature, but after hitting the halfway point three adrift of the four leaders yesterday, he just about remains in a position to ascend to the big-time with his first Major win this afternoon. With the wind predicted to take a wrecking ball to a few more rounds today and Villegas capable of putting together a lacerating run of birdies, he’s not out of it.
The man who knows his game best, his college coach and mentor Buddy Alexander, has no doubts that he can seize the opportunity if the overnight leaders falter. “Will Camilo be comfortable with the lead on the 16th tee on Sunday? We don’t know yet,” said the Gators’ golf coach. “I guarantee you, though, that he wants to be there. He’s a killer. Behind that playful kid there’s a son of a bitch who will take a knife, carve your heart out and show it to you on the first tee.”