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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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After tidying up the kitchen Maritza appears with scrapbooks of old photos and yellowed newspaper clippings. There is a grainy picture of two-year-old Jhonattan swinging a broomstick with freakishly good form. "He was a natural," says his father, eyeing the photo. By the time Jhonattan was a teenager, the family lived at Quiriquire, an oil camp 15 miles from Maturín. The golf course had not yet been shuttered by President Chávez, and there Vegas honed a swing of such ferocity that when he was 15, a local paper conjured a famous boxer in a headline: JHONATTAN "TYSON" VEGAS. In the story the young slugger professed the simple goal of "becoming one of the best golfers in the world." (He's not quite there yet—Jhonattan has been slowed in the first three months of 2012 by putting problems and a dinged-up shoulder.) Maritza laughs as she reads the clipping, at the kismet of a kid's oversized dream being so close to coming true.

Bored by the familiar family stories and drowsy from brunch, the Vegas sons scatter one by one to take naps, to play golf or, in Jhonattan's case, to meet his longtime girlfriend, Hildegard Struppek, as she arrives from Houston, where they live together and she is a grad student. Carlos is shown a few new photographs. The day before, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED had sneaked onto Quiriquire. The compound is still active, and massive piles of rebar and piping hint at upcoming construction, though not anytime soon; on this day only two workers could be found, one stretched out atop a bulldozer, snoozing, the other slouched under a tree, snacking. What used to be the golf course is now overgrown, unused land. Still, the contours of old fairways and greens are discernible. Carlos studies the images of a lost course and a life interrupted. After a few deep breaths he finally says, "It makes me nostalgic. It makes me sad."

Venezuela's first documented petroleum shipment occurred in 1593, when a lone barrel of oil was sent to Spain for Emperor Charles V's medicinal use. By the 1930s, Venezuela was the largest oil-exporting nation in the world; a 1943 law established a 50--50 split on profits between the state and private industry, beginning the country's complicated petropolitics, which continue to this day.

Oil brought vast wealth to the Venezuelan elites, and they congregated at stately Caracas Country Club, established in the 1920s with grounds laid out by Olmsted Brothers, and across town at the glamorous Valle Arriba Country Club, both of which were also popular with well-heeled American expatriates. Carlos Vegas grew up in the El Guire slum that fills the hills above Caracas, and beginning at age six he caddied at nearby Valle Arriba. Then, as now, the practice range is a sliver of land wedged between the 12th and 13th holes, and caddies collect the balls as their players hit them. Carlos fashioned a glove out of a milk carton to snag the balls as they whizzed by.

Observing the ruling class helped fuel his ambition for a better life. He worked his way through college, earning a degree in hospitality and tourism. In 1983, Carlos landed a job managing a restaurant at the oil camp Morichal and eventually took over the food concession for its nine-hole course. Jhonattan and Julio were born during this time, delivered into a tightly knit community of about 150 families, many of whom had relocated from the U.S. "It was an American culture—one big family," says Carlos. "What was most valued were the children. Everything was done to help them learn, have fun, move around freely. The living was clean and safe. It was the opposite of growing up in an urban environment where you learn to be tough and hard. I thank God that my kids grew up in that setting. It was a magical place."

Jhonattan's memories are similarly fond. "We could ride our bikes everywhere," he says, "and we could play golf all day, every day. What more could you ask for as a kid?"

Carlos was a natural athlete who had been taught the game by the caddies at Valle Arriba. He introduced a fundamentally sound swing to his sons but gave them the space to figure things out on their own. "I was my dad's first student," says Carlitos. "The job was always to teach my brothers. I helped Jhonattan. He helped Julio, and Julio helped Billy. That was the work plan. But it wasn't work. The goal was to have fun. Always fun."

Yet the Vegas boys were expected to be golfing gentlemen. During a family outing Carlitos hurled a club in anger and was promptly sent home for the rest of the day by his father, a moment the brothers still vividly recall. On another occasion Jhonattan was discovered with a cache of sparkling new balls that had gone missing from the pro shop. He may or may not have been among the boys who had liberated them, but as punishment Carlos made his son hit 400 practice balls in a row. Halfway through the old man began to feel a tinge of guilt and told Jhonattan he could stop. Instead, Jhonattan dutifully worked his way through the remaining 200 balls.

When Jhonattan was 12, the family relocated to Quiriquire, which offered a challenging, hilly course and a group of boys who were passionate about golf. Jhonattan quickly fell in with the crew, who called themselves Los Muchachos de Quiriquire. On the weekend Carlos would load up his sagging Jeep Wagoneer to drive the boys to regional tournaments. "Up to a dozen of them would pile into the car!" he says. "They sang and told jokes as we drove early in the morning. They were so happy. They formed such a strong bond that they are all still friends today."

The idyllic life of the Vegas family was forever altered, according to Carlos, when he chose to register his opposition to Chávez, who had come to power in 1999 on the wings of revolutionary rhetoric. "If you were a man who signed the Táscon List, then you got hit hard," Carlos says. "Anyone who appeared on that list couldn't do any business with the state. So I lost the concession in Quiriquire. And the Exxon Mobil plant had been expropriated, so I lost that business as well."

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