That Camilo Villegas feels entirely at home in the limelight was clear to everyone who witnessed his startling finish in the second round of the Open here yesterday. What remained hidden to all the admiring eyes, however, were his fears of the potential cost of such fame. In Colombia, celebrity has a price. A terrible price, in many instances.
Villegas was understandably guarded when, in the wake of the 65 that hauled him high up the leaderboard, he was asked about his homeland's troubles. "I love my country," he repeated several times, before saying: "I miss my home." The truth is, Villegas has not been back to Medellin, a city renowned for the activities of a certain Pablo Escobar, anywhere near as often as he would like. And one of the reasons for his absence seems a million miles from this genteel setting on England's north-west coast.
The better the 26-year-old becomes known, the greater the danger of his being kidnapped. It is a simple equation that most prominent Latin American sportsmen must come to recognise. So Villegas, a flamboyant figure who has put golf on the front pages in Colombia, has had to cancel trips home. "Because things have changed a lot," he said earlier this year. "There has been a lot of commotion and reaction. Newspapers and the internet make it available for people to see how much money I make. It's not the most secure place. I'm just hoping people value what I do and that I'm trying to do the best for my country."
Villegas is certainly doing his best for golf in his country. His presence on the PGA Tour has inspired one of the larger Colombian television channels to purchase the rights and, in turn, the popularity of the game has increased. A few years ago it would have been impossible to find a course that would accept uninvited guests who could afford to pay only a daily fee – there are approximately 50 courses in Colombia and all but a few are private, with annual membership fees rising to the £100,000 mark. It would also have been impossible to find a public driving range.
Since Villegas's emergence things have started to change and he plainly sees it to be within his brief to help continue the growth. Colombia, he accepts, may be treacherous for a national superstar like himself to visit, but for golfing tourists he claims it to be as safe as a bunkerless par three.
"Just like every country it has its problems and we tend to have a reputation," he said yesterday. "But I guarantee everyone in this room that if anyone takes a trip there, it's completely different than how the media portrays it."
Villegas's nickname is Spider-Man, because of the unique manner in which he studies the contours of a putt, crouching down parallel to the ground, extending his left leg back while balancing with his right leg. His game is similarly distinctive.
By common consent – even that of Tiger Woods – Villegas is the most "ripped" athlete on the fairways and when he attacks, he does so with power. It is fair to say that he fired up the afterburners on the 14th tee yesterday. At that stage he was happy to be back on his overnight total of six over, after beginning yesterday's round with two bogeys.
"I was eight over after two holes and just thinking, 'Come on, just grind and make the cut,'" he said. He walked off the 18th in second place after what he called "a funky finish".
Five birdies in the last five holes at Birkdale in this wind is far more than "funky"; it is more like "funking unbelievable". It began with a 16-footer on the 14th, was kept going by a rare birdie on the fearsome 16th and was capped with a three on the 18th from an unlikely spot.
"I was in the rough and had 176 yards to the flag and used a pitching wedge," he said. "That tells you how funky it is to play golf around here. This is my first Open and I love this type of golf."
It would be wrong to refer to Villegas as a links virgin. He appeared in two Amateur Championships, at nearby Hoylake and Royal County Down in Northern Ireland, and picked up a few secrets of the seaside. But the bulk of his knowledge comes from a practice round he shared with a certain Greg Norman on Tuesday. The pair talked about the Open and reasoned how lucky they were to be here. As an ex-champion, Norman's place is assured; Villegas, the world No 52, only qualified because of Kenny Perry's controversial withdrawal. Perry's reasons for staying away were entirely selfish; Villegas has no such luxury.
"If I play good golf and people say, 'Hey, he's from Colombia and he's doing something positive,' that will help with what people think of my country," he said.
If he wins the Open, they might even risk a visit.Reuse content