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April 09, 2012
Fleeing Venezuela for a better life and a chance to pursue his dream, Jhonattan Vegas found happiness in Texas, thanks to a far-reaching support group that has been with him every step of his journey
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April 09, 2012

How Jhonny Made Good

Fleeing Venezuela for a better life and a chance to pursue his dream, Jhonattan Vegas found happiness in Texas, thanks to a far-reaching support group that has been with him every step of his journey

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On a blazing December day, Jhonattan Vegas returned to his hometown of Maturín, Venezuela, for the first time since everything had changed. He arrived in a private jet copiloted by his boyhood friend Joseph Naffah, a child of privilege with whom he had forged an unlikely bond during junior golf. Stepping onto the tarmac of General José Tadeo Monagas Airport, Vegas was greeted by a mural of Hugo Chávez with one of el Presidente's favorite slogans: Patria, socialismo o muerte! (Patriotism, socialism or death!) Vegas betrayed no emotion upon seeing these fighting words. In the terminal he was engulfed by friends and family, a few turned out in Nike hats or University of Texas polos. A small army of reporters and cameramen recorded the moment. Three hours earlier there had been a larger, rowdier crowd featuring the mayor of Maturín, a 20-person choir and ponytailed pixies twirling batons, but they had dispersed after Vegas's arrival from Caracas was delayed by a series of screwups, an unfortunate development that was greeted with shrugs. Venezuelans are used to things that rarely run on time.

Vegas, 27, finally made it through the terminal and piled into an SUV idling at the curb. Three motorcycle cops raced ahead to clear traffic. (Unlike Vegas's transportation during the preceding two days in Caracas, the SUV was not armored or equipped with bulletproof windows or driven by commandos.) The destination was the San Miguel Hotel, Golf & Club, one of 11 18-hole courses in a country of 28 million people. San Miguel was the venue for a fund-raising event benefiting the nascent Jhonattan Vegas Foundation, which is dedicated to building Maturín's first public library and other educational initiatives. The last time Vegas had been home, in December 2010, he had just finished a successful year on the Nationwide tour but was known only to the tiny tribe of golfers in his country. A month later he dazzled the golf world by winning the Bob Hope Classic in only his second start as a PGA Tour rookie and then very nearly winning a week later at Torrey Pines, displaying not only an overpowering game but also a sincere, fun-loving charisma that poured through the TV screen. Years earlier Chávez had famously dismissed golf as a "bourgeois" sport, but this opportunist took to the airwaves after the Hope to hail Vegas. "He beat all the gringos, nice one!" Chávez said. "He is the pride of Venezuela."

Being a national hero is not without complications for Vegas. Around 2002, Chávez began shutting down the golf courses that were run by the state oil company, saying there were better uses for the land. (All these years later this fallow earth remains largely untouched.) In 2003, Vegas's father, Carlos, a onetime caddie, said he signed a recall petition of Chávez, as did millions of other Venezuelans. This roll call of dissidents became known as the Táscon List, after the National Assembly member who published the names on the Internet. After Chávez survived the recall referendum, there were reprisals for those on the Táscon List; Carlos Vegas lost his food-concession business and another contract he had to feed workers at an Exxon Mobil plant. He could not find work for the next three years. With golf being treated as an enemy of the state, the 17-year-old Jhonattan was sent to Houston—alone, speaking only a few words of English, with one suitcase and a set of beat-up clubs—to live with Venezuelan expatriates and develop his game.

Following his against-all-odds victory at the Hope, Jhonattan longed to return home to celebrate, but it took 11 months for the political climate in Venezuela to be deemed suitable. Now, at San Miguel Hotel, Golf & Club, it took Vegas another half hour to make it the final 50 yards as he navigated the endless hugs and kisses and cellphone snapshots of another mob of well-wishers. Finally he reached a large room for a press conference that turned into something closer to a religious revival. Every answer was greeted with rapturous applause. Kids who were participants in the foundation tournament approached the microphone in the middle of the room and asked questions, wide-eyed. Old acquaintances got up and told touching stories, never bothering with a question. Finally Miguel Martínez, 39, came to the microphone. He had been known as Venezuela's best golfer until he was superseded by Vegas. Martínez spoke in a quiet voice for more than 10 minutes, and so heartfelt was his testimonial that Vegas was blinking back tears for much of it.

"I have known Jhonattan since he was a little kid, and I am extremely proud of what he has done," Martínez said. "He comes from humble origins and a hardworking family, like many of us. What he has done is amazing. More significant than the pride we feel for his success is what his victory can do for the future of this sport we all love. His success is symbolic of the possibilities for all of the poor children who are engaged in a daily fight for survival. The doors to a better life can be opened for them through golf, as they were for Jhonattan and me. Venezuelan golf has been through hard times. But we must do what we can to open those doors again. We cannot give up on the children. We lost track of many after the golf courses were closed. We had created a thriving, supportive community for them, and then it was all gone. We have to once again provide disadvantaged kids with an opportunity to learn this game. Golf builds character and strength. We can help them achieve their dreams, like Jhonattan has."

When Vegas spoke, he said, "I love my country. Everything I do, I do for Venezuela." Later, in a quieter, more introspective moment, he admitted, "There is a lot of pressure. It is hard enough trying to succeed on the PGA Tour and win tournaments. That role"—single-handedly saving golf in his homeland—"is a very big one. But I have to do all I can. Golf has given me everything I have. I owe it to the game and to my people to give back as much as I can."

Breakfast time at Vegas's parents' place, an airy, modern, 3,000-square-foot apartment on a top floor of a white stone building a block from one of the main thoroughfares in Maturín, a petroleum hub near the northeastern coast of Venezuela. The air is alive with conversation and the smell of arepas, buns of ground corn that have been fried and stuffed with butter and meats and cheeses and sauces (and, on rare occasions, a stray vegetable). Carlos is asked how many days a week he eats arepas. "Ocho," he says, with one of his thunderous laughs that seem to emanate from deep within a substantial belly. This was a particularly jolly occasion because for the first time in a year Carlos had all of his boys under the same roof. Carlitos (31), Julio (23) and Billy (20) were sitting around the dining room table with Jhonattan, while in the kitchen their mother, Maritza, cranked out arepas in a futile attempt to match the rate of consumption. Only a few hours earlier the entire family, and a dozen of Jhonattan's friends, had returned from a concert that lasted from midnight until 5 a.m. Along the way nine bottles of 18-year-old whiskey were emptied, and just as many bottles of champagne. This is more or less a typical night out when Jhonattan is home. "Venezuelans really know how to party," he says. "We get a little crazy."

The apartment is stuffed with trophies and mementos from all of the boys' careers. Julio is a junior on the Texas golf team, Billy a sophomore playing across town for St. Edwards University. (Carlitos holds a degree in agronomic engineering; he works for an oil drilling company in Maturín but dreams of becoming a golf course architect.) It is a loving, affectionate family, but the brothers compete against each other with a cutthroat intensity. Every Dec. 28 the Vegas clan plays a match that pits Julio, Carlitos and their dad against Jhonattan, Billy and their mom. They call it the Blacks versus the Browns, because the teams are arranged by complexion. Carlos's skin is as dark as a dictator's heart, while Maritza is a fair-skinned beauty; their boys come in different shades. It is not unimportant that Jhonattan is a man of color. In Venezuela, as throughout South America, the elites skew toward lighter skin, a look that is often described euphemistically as European. Ramón Muñoz, one of the first great Venezuelan golfers, says, "That Jhonattan is dark-skinned makes him stick out in the golf world. People notice him more. Not only in Venezuela, but everywhere. It establishes him as a man of the people."

Once the arepas are polished off, Julio grabs a remote, switches off the Golf Channel feed of an Australian tournament and, from the DVR, cues up recorded coverage of the Venezuelan winter baseball league's All-Star Game. Jhonattan was one of the featured attractions of the two-day affair in Caracas. Throughout the raucous home run derby—fans banged drums while the P.A. announcer shouted deafening play-by-play—Jhonattan stood behind home plate and received a procession of Venezuelan baseball royalty. Afterward, in the parking lot, he sounded like a starstruck fan. "Oh, man, that was incredible," he said. "That was like a dream. I grew up watching those guys on TV and cheering for them. To have them come up to me and say congratulations and talk about how excited they were watching me win, that is blowing my mind." The next night, he painted the outside corner with the ceremonial first pitch. Then he repaired to a spartan private box to drink the national beer, Polar, and watch the All-Star Game with two Venezuelan baseball legends, Andres Galarraga and Dave Concepcion. The engaging Galarraga is, without exaggeration, the most popular man in Venezuela. He sees a lot of himself in Vegas, as do others. "Journalists have commented on how similar we are," Galarraga said from the private box high above the field. "We are always laughing. Even when we are going through a bad moment. We are very optimistic. That's the best way to look at things and make things better. Jhonattan has a great disposition, he works hard at what he does. He is a great ambassador."

Throughout the All-Star coverage Vegas got frequent face time on Venezuelan TV, but at one point he was identified by a graphic that misspelled his first and last names: JONATHAN VEGA. When this appears on the television at the family apartment, the Vegas boys howl with laughter. "You'll have to win a couple more tournaments for them to get it right," Billy cracks.

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