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"Every time in my life I've needed help, someone has appeared," Jhonattan says. "It's overwhelming to think about it. God had a plan for me, for sure."
As Vegas embarked on his pro career in the summer of 2008, his remarkable personal success story was playing out against the backdrop of golf under siege in his homeland. On YouTube there are morbidly fascinating videos of Chávez in the streets of Venezuela pointing at buildings and declaring, "Expropiese." Just like that, the government owns them. Those who love golf in Venezuela fretted that their playing fields would suffer the same fate, especially after the mayor of Caracas tried to seize the Caracas Country Club under the auspices of using the land to build housing for the poor. (He backed down after a legal skirmish.) "There was nervousness, there was fear," says Francisco Alvarado, the head pro at Valle Arriba. "We didn't know what the future held, for the club or for the sport. We needed something to change the perception of golf in this country."
The golden age of golf in Venezuela came in the 1960s and '70s. The country's national championship was an important part of the wintertime Copas de Americas schedule and drew pros from around the world. Americans won eight out of nine beginning in 1961, with the victors including Al (Mr. 59) Geiberger and Masters champ Art Wall. In the '70s international stars Roberto de Vicenzo (Argentina), Tony Jacklin (England) and David Graham (Australia) prevailed.
In the 1990s the November and December golf calendar increasingly became defined by tournaments in Australia, South Africa and Asia. The South American tour declined in importance, and Venezuelan events ceased to attract top talent. Chávez's antipathy for the game only increased the country's isolation in the golfing world. "Do you mean to tell me this is a people's sport?" he once asked on national television. "It is not."
Little wonder that top lieutenants in the government were never seen around Caracas's private clubs, where entry fees can run to the equivalent of $50,000. Members of the Venezuelan golf firmament still marvel at how Vegas's victory at a place called Hope (and Chávez's subsequent public crowing) changed everything. "It was as if a dark cloud suddenly lifted," says Henrique Lavie, the president of Lagunita Country Club. "Jhonattan was the right person at the right time."
Throughout South America, countries with little golf tradition are beginning to ramp up funding now that the sport is returning to the Olympics in 2016, when the Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro. There is the possibility that in Rio, Jhonattan will represent Venezuela alongside Julio. The PGA Tour is also making a significant investment in the region with the newly created PGA Tour Latinoamerica. The Venezuelan golf community is lobbying hard to get an event after '12, which happens to be an election year for Chávez. "The government is looking at golf differently now," says Lavie, who doubles as the executive director of PGA Tour Latinoamerica. "Seeing the pride Jhonattan has brought to Venezuela, of course the Ministry of Sports wants to give golf more support. Jhonattan is winning, the PGA Tour Latinoamerica is coming, the Olympics are coming—this is the time."
And not just at the macro level. In a country with only a handful of public courses, the private clubs are belatedly recognizing that they need to be better stewards. "We need to open the doors to the people, so golf can be seen differently," says Lavie. "We cannot be so exclusive and isolated. If we keep the doors closed, we will not exist." At Lagunita this means offering times when nonmembers can tee it up. Significantly, a handful of prominent government officials have recently accepted invitations to join the club. Across town at Valle Arriba the goal is to be even more inclusive. Every Monday the club allows residents of El Guire—Carlos Vegas's old barrio—to play free of charge, with equipment supplied by Valle Arriba. "People who know nothing about golf know Jhonattan," says Alvarado. "The kids in the slums know his name, know his story. They think he is one of them. So we feel a responsibility to give them the opportunity to better themselves through sport, as Jhonattan has." Vegas, too, sees himself as an agent of change, and his foundation is an important part of his legacy. It was his calculated decision to build a library rather than a driving range. "A library will benefit more people right away," he says.
But a primary goal of the foundation is to nurture the aspirations of disadvantaged young golfers. During his fund-raising tournament in Maturín, Vegas played alongside DisMary Márquez, 17. To see her swing is to know she has been bestowed with supreme athletic gifts, but DisMary's weary smile hints at a larger struggle. She lives in one of Caracas's most notorious barrios and does not carry her hand-me-down set of clubs on the street for fear of being targeted. As DisMary has struggled to transcend her bleak surroundings, she admits to having one recurring thought: Can someone please help me get out of this hell I'm living in?
Vegas instantly bonded with DisMary and since their round together he has promised to pay for her to relocate to Houston, where she can benefit from Kevin Kirk's tutelage and the Betancourts' homemade arepas. Vegas vows that she is only the first of many young Venezuelans he will bring to Houston to follow his path. Why start with DisMary? "I could see she has that energy to go forward, the same energy I had," he says. "All she needs is a little help."
It is no surprise that Vegas wants to give back, because he has been given so much by so many. Yet the greatest gift may have been President Chávez's hostility toward golf. It forced Vegas to be sent away from the country he loves, so he could one day return to save the sport that has made him.