It took a couple of years for the impact of all this to play out. Carlos had saved up enough money to occasionally take Jhonattan to the U.S. to face better competition. In the summer of 2002 they traveled to Torrey Pines in San Diego for the Junior World Golf Championships, the tournament that launched the careers of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Lorena Ochoa, among others. Jhonattan exceeded expectations—including his own—by finishing sixth. From San Diego, Carlos and Jhonattan journeyed to Houston to visit old friends from home. Franci Betancourt had long been a leading figure in Venezuelan golf circles, three times flying the flag at the World Cup of Golf from 1966 to '75 and then becoming a respected teaching pro at various oil camps, where he met Carlos. Franci's son Gustavo was a contemporary of Jhonattan's, and they were pals who had competed against each other in numerous Venezuelan junior tournaments. In 2000 the Betancourts relocated to Houston. Franci still felt a deep connection to his homeland, so he and his wife, Alba, began mentoring promising young Venezuelan golfers. After a few days in Houston, Carlos had a conversation with Franci that has long since passed into lore:
"I want Jhonattan to stay here," Carlos said.
"You mean for lunch?"
Kevin Kirk's life is also a story of golf and oil. Born in Odessa, Texas, his family moved to a Venezuelan oil camp called Tia Juana when he was a boy. At age eight he began taking golf lessons from Franci Betancourt. "He's been a real big influence on the direction of my life," Kirk says. He went on to be an All-America at Sam Houston State and spent most of the 1980s knocking around various professional tours before embarking on a career ministering to golf swings. When he was director of instruction at Cypresswood Country Club, near Houston, he reached into his past and brought over Betancourt as a teaching pro. Over time, Kirk helped guide the young Venezuelans who began boarding with Franci and his wife. Kirk was part of the initial meetings between Carlos and Franci, and once it was decided that Jhonattan would stay in Houston, Kirk was charged with easing his culture shock. He was not impressed by his initial inventory.
"Jhonattan literally spoke 10 words of English," says Kirk. "He had six or seven cuss words and a little golf jargon—birdie, bogey, par. At that point he had clubs that he had knocked all the grooves off of. He had completely knocked all the chrome off of them. He had one or two shirts and a couple pairs of slacks, but everything had a bunch of miles on it. The shoes were dirty and looked as if they didn't fit. You couldn't even imagine this guy had just finished sixth at the Junior Worlds against all these kids sponsored by Titleist. It was pretty funny, actually."
But Vegas possessed the one thing that matters most: "I had the energy to go forward," he says. "I had the desire to be the best I can be."
Kirk was moved to help because he could sense Jhonattan's drive and the family's desperation. "None of this was logical," Kirk says. "But listening to Carlos's story about the situation back home, and looking in Jhonattan's eyes, it was the right thing to do."
The first time Kirk went out to watch the kid play, he pulled up in a cart when Vegas was on the tee of the 7th hole of Cypresswood's Tradition course, an uphill 530-yard par-5. Vegas was well on his way to his current dimensions of 6'3" and 230 pounds, but Kirk had no idea of the kid's savage strength. "He rears back with his driver and leaves it way up on the upslope," says Kirk. "Then he hits a little nine-iron onto the green. He hit it 390 yards the first shot I saw him play. I said to myself, You have to be kidding."
Vegas enrolled at a junior college and spent every morning learning English and every afternoon studying golf. "He never wanted to stop hitting balls," says Gustavo Betancourt. "He'd see those pyramids of shiny white balls and say, 'This is like heaven.'"