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Saturday, January 29, 2011
Updated: January 30, 7:13 PM ET
Jhonattan Vegas takes long road back

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- It is hard to imagine dreaming this stuff, much less living it.

Jhonattan Vegas
A week ago, PGA Tour rookie Jhonattan Vegas won the Bob Hope Classic in a playoff. With 18 holes to play, he stands three shots off the lead held by Phil Mickelson and Bill Haas at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Jhonattan Vegas hails from Venezuela, where the country's president has decreed golf an "elitist" sport and saw to it that golf courses disappeared.

Vegas started playing the game with broomsticks and rocks in his native land, and nine years after leaving the country, he is card-carrying member of the PGA Tour and a tournament winner.

And on Saturday at Torrey Pines, he got to introduce himself to Tiger Woods on the first tee, then proceeded to beat him by five strokes on his way to another late tee time Sunday at the Farmers Insurance Open.

"It's been a lot of fun," said Vegas, the first Venezuelan to play the PGA Tour and who is competing in just his sixth tournament. "Like I always say, it's always a lot of fun playing great. I just feel like I'm playing pretty good golf right now.

"Today was an incredible day playing alongside Tiger Woods. I really enjoyed it a lot."

Vegas, 26, finds his name among an impressive leaderboard.

Local favorite Phil Mickelson shot 4-under-par 68 on the South course to tie Bill Haas for the 54-hole lead. A shot behind are Hunter Mahan and Bubba Watson, both of whom eagled the par-5 18th hole. Anthony Kim is another stroke back.

And then there is Vegas, who a week ago won the Bob Hope Classic in a sudden-death playoff over Haas and Gary Woodland, setting up a wild week that continues to amaze.

Vegas couldn't keep track of all the messages he received and didn't even answer the phone when Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, called to congratulate him. Vegas didn't recognize the phone number.

They did later hook up, and Chavez backed off some of his earlier comments about golf, having said it was a "bourgeois" sport -- although it is clear he probably likes the game about as much as he does capitalism and hailed Vegas for beating all the "gringos."

Vegas, understandably, is careful what he says. His parents, Carlos and Maritza, still live there, although they are having a blast following him from Hawaii to Palm Springs and now San Diego.

But there is no denying that Chavez has had dozens of courses razed believing the land can be put to better use.

"The government decided people should be working instead of playing golf," Vegas said. "I had a lot of friends who played golf. None of them do now."

Vegas is hopeful for a meeting with Chavez at some point so he can point out the benefits of the game.

"He always said golf is for elite people," Vegas said. "I'd like to tell him it is not that way."

Vegas' first name -- pronounced Jonathan, but he has also taken to the name "Johnny Vegas" -- is not all that is unique about him. He is 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, with a powerful build, who is long off the tee but also accurate.

His father, Carlos, grew up near a golf course in Caracas and caddied for a time and later operated a catering business that had a nine-hole course nearby. He taught his three sons the game.

It was a 2002 trip to the Callaway Junior Worlds in 2002 -- here at Torrey Pines -- that changed everything for Vegas. He tied for sixth, got an offer to move in with a Venezuelan family in Houston before his 18th birthday and, despite not knowing any English, enrolled in a community college.

That led to a scholarship offer from Texas and a college degree in kinesiology. Last year, he got this Nationwide Tour card and finished seventh on the money list, earning a spot on the PGA Tour.

Now he's got a victory, an invitation to the Masters and has played a round with Woods.

"I had never seen him play before," Woods said. "It was neat to play with him. Really nice kid, so it was good to see him.

"He was grinding out there. He had a couple of loose shots here and there, but he recovered well. So it's awfully nice to see. He had a lot of patience. He grinded his way around the golf course, and he put himself right there in contention going into [Sunday]."

Vegas' caddie, Louis Sira, remarked that he's seen a "boost in confidence" since the victory a week ago.

And that triumph came despite a bogey on the final hole that dropped him into a playoff, where he won after hitting a tee shot into the water.

Now he's shot three straight 69s to put his name among those on an impressive leaderboard.

"I've always dreamed of being here," he said. "I always knew that I had the opportunity to play here and play well. And so I'm just living my dream, just loving it, and having a great time.

"And making a lot of birdies."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.