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Vegas quickly became a force on the Texas amateur circuit, one memorable victory coming in a driving rainstorm, when he was outfitted in only a thin cotton sweatshirt. "That's not a fun way to play golf," he says, "but it made me tougher. Now when I play in bad conditions I laugh, because I have all the fancy rain gear and a caddie holding an umbrella for me. That's almost too easy."
Six months after arriving in the U.S., Vegas attempted to qualify for the PGA Tour's Shell Houston Open. It was something of a lark, until he shot a 67 and played his way into the field. During tournament week he found himself sandwiched on the range between Hall of Famers Mickelson and Ernie Els. No one was paying attention to Vegas as he loosened up with a five-iron. "Then he takes out his driver," says Kirk, who was standing behind his pupil, "and the first driver he hits, Phil stops in his tracks and spins around, because it makes such a distinct sound when Jhonattan hits it. It was distinctive even to a guy like Phil Mickelson. So Jhonattan whacks a few more, and now Phil is simply standing there watching him, and a few other guys are too. Finally [Mickelson] walks over to JV and says, 'Hey, who are you? And where are you from?'"
Vegas shot 77--76 and missed the cut, but he says, "When I look back now, I'm kind of amazed how comfortable I felt. After that week I knew what my destiny was."
Vegas's ability to come through in the clutch helped him pass the SAT and Test of English as a Foreign Language. With the help of Rick Forester—a part owner of Cypresswood and member of a well-connected golf family—Vegas attracted the attention of a number of big-time college programs. Texas coach John Fields first met Vegas at the Cypresswood range. After watching exactly two swings Fields said, "We'll take him"—and he meant it. Texas came through with a full ride, and in the fall of 2003 Vegas began to fulfill his promise to his parents that he would become the first member of his family to earn a college degree. (Carlitos went back to school a couple of years after his kid brother's matriculation.) Vegas's game was college-ready, but he was ill-equipped to fit in with his classmates. He had one towel and one set of sheets. "But no pillowcase!" he adds with a laugh. He had no car, computer or—gasp—cellphone. His English remained a work in progress. The Betancourts had been good surrogates for Vegas's loving family, but in Austin, Jhonattan was all alone.
Until, suddenly, he wasn't.
During his freshman year another guardian angel came into Vegas's life, in the well-tanned form of Dick Kemp, a successful Austin businessman and longtime friend of the Texas golf program. Forester had asked his old friend Kemp to keep an eye on Vegas. During a couple of casual rounds of golf Vegas charmed Kemp—"He's such a loving and warm young man," Kemp says—but Kemp could sense Vegas's displacement. Under the pretense of being curious about student housing, Kemp invited himself to inspect Vegas's dorm room. "I was really angry about it," Kemp says. "He had nothing. Both Jhonattan's parents and Franci Betancourt thought that a scholarship meant everything would be taken care of. The tuition and books were, but there was so much else he needed. He couldn't even afford to call his parents back home. I felt something needed to be done."
Kemp was wary of running afoul of NCAA rules, but a lawyer friend hatched a clever solution: Kemp could attend to Jhonattan's material needs if he became his legal guardian. Suddenly Vegas had a computer, a cellphone, a used Chevy Cavalier and a pillowcase. But still something profound was lacking.
"After Jhonattan had the cellphone for a few weeks, I was fielding calls more frequently than I was expecting," says Kemp. "Then one day after the fifth or sixth call, I gruffly said, 'What do you want?' There was a silence, then he said, 'I just wanted to know where you were.' I felt like a real jerk because I finally realized how much this kid needed our love."
Vegas began spending weekends at Kemp's house, watching sports and doing laundry and enjoying meals prepared by Kemp's girlfriend, Melisa. Yet for all the hospitality, Vegas was often sick during his first year in Austin. When he finally let slip about a toothache, Kemp took him to the dentist. Six root canals later, Jhonattan's health improved dramatically.
Vegas had a solid but unspectacular career at Texas, receiving some notice when he made it to the semifinals of the 2007 U.S. Amateur. More important, he earned a degree in kinesiology. On graduation night, in May 2008, his patron saints came together at a party during which tears and spirits flowed. Jhonattan's parents were there, of course, as were the Betancourts, Kevin Kirk, Rick Forester and the couple Jhonattan calls his American parents. "This whole experience encouraged me to ask Melisa to marry me," Kemp says. "The Vegas family brought their love into our life, and it's something special." Kemp has become the legal guardian for Billy and Julio while they are in Austin, and both brothers drove Jhonattan's hand-me-down Cavalier until it was retired with a quarter-million miles on it.