Good Sport: Win some, lose some at the Wyndham

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by Jeff Laughlin

The patrons walked from exhibit to exhibit at the pace of the game, studying each master’s contribution to the overall art form. Some artists painted with splashes of color — smiles after nice drives or humorous quips in earshot of their caddies. Others sculpted with gravitas — stern looks no matter the outcome of their latest creation.

On Saturday, I followed Camilo Villegas. I had always admired his swing. There’s this beautiful pause at the very top of it, as if he contemplates the ferocity and violence of his undertaking before unleashing. He does not hit with the power other golfers do, but he strikes impressively.

He had the honor of being the first professional golfer I ever saw hit a ball during live play. At the Masters Tournament in 2010, he played the second hole to a par early on Sunday morning. It affirmed my belief that golf’s true skill is infinitely harder to master than other sports’ true skills.

Controlling that tiny ball with what little forces these people have captivates admirers. You can gaze into a golf swing and never uncover meaning, but that doesn’t mean you don’t see beauty.

Since I saw him in Augusta, Villegas struggled mightily on tour: winless these last four years. Believing that I had cursed him, I silently — as is the custom in golf — moved with him, hoping he could snap his streak.

Tournament Saturdays provide the most value for fans. The detritus retired with the cut line, the players suited for the course bunch together at the top and prepare for Sunday’s crowds of frontrunners and followers. With fewer golfers then Thursday and Friday and lower fan turnout than Sunday, Saturday allows the roaming galleries to truly cheer on their favorite players.

Villegas faltered a little bit on the greens early, but remained in position to make his move. He stayed on fairways and played good, safe shots. Unfortunately, caution does not favor the Wyndham. Unless the weather intervenes, most winners have tremendous Saturdays.

Villegas never even bordered on tremendous. He painted corners and left the middle of the canvas blank.

He had already murdered the course on Monday, shooting a 7-under 63. On Friday and Saturday, he stayed in contention, but did not look like a golfer ready to win a tournament. He played to the flattest surfaces, two-putting while players like Freddy Jacobsen and Bill Haas scored 66 to move up the leaderboard.

The moment I became a fan, Villegas’ career stalled. He’d never be heard from again. So moved the curse. Poor guy had no idea I had been pulling his strings all along..

So, it stood to reason that Sunday, I needed to find a new golfer. I did not settle for Southern boys or former champs. I wanted a power swinger lurking behind all the top guns.

I needed a dark horse with a cool name.

I found Johnnie Vegas, a Venezuelan power driver with a massive frame and towering stance. He teed off just before the final five groups, the perfect time to stay ahead of the crowds.

If Villegas painted with delicacy, Vegas covered his canvas in broad strokes. He smashed the ball off the first tee and proceeded to destroy the course for nine holes. He birdied four times in eight holes before a gorgeous shot to a green in regulation on the 9th

If he had birdied 9, he would have tied the leaders at -14 just as CBS’ cameras began live coverage.

The 9th hole represents a turning point at Sedgefield: the first glimpse of a grandstand and the first truly crowded hole since the first. The clubhouse and drinking spots lurk nearby, so the foot traffic picks up exponentially.

The stakes feel raised.

Vegas lined up the perfect angle. He hit the perfect speed, slightly uphill to the left hole location. The crowd inhaled sharply. A chance to lead rolled casually to the hole before glancing just left, mere centimeters from changing everything.

The exhale of the crowd — who may or may not have known just how special that shot would have been — marked the beginning of the end for Vegas. He failed to move any further than a tie for 7th before fading to -13, four shots off the lead to close his day.

It turned out I backed the right guy all along. The Villegas curse lifted — or more correctly had never existed — and he cruised through the course with a Sunday -7, the best score of the day.

That sweet swing anchored him through an even better front 9 than Vegas. Then he put together a -1 on the back 9, where the greens get significantly harder. I caught up with him at 17 and watched as he missed the clincher; a gorgeous putt hit just a bit short.

I thought maybe that chance would beat him, that maybe one of my favorite golfers on tour was just that far away from being good enough to take a title.

Then three other golfers fell to 17’s impossible putts. They bogeyed when he earned par. Nothing flashy, Villegas just filled in the blank space. He emerged from the clubhouse to hoist his trophy — a silver cup worthy of a Colombian master.

Once the exhibition closed, the patrons knew they had seen something special. And they’ll all pile into the museum again next year.