Acclaimed pitching coach a boost to Vegas
January 20, 2016
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
- Jhonattan Vegas won the CareerBuilder Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation five years ago. (Marianna Massey/Getty Images)
In 2011, Jhonattan Vegas became the first Venezuelan to win on the PGA TOUR. Half a decade later, he’s still searching for his second victory after an injury-filled span that ultimately led him to pitching coach Tom House.
How Vegas would end up working with House, a former lefty reliever who became notable for among other things helping extend the career of Nolan Ryan, goes back to his days at the University of Texas.
Vegas was a senior for the Longhorns in 2008 when he injured his left shoulder during a workout. He never fully recovered and the shoulder continued to deteriorate through the first few years of his pro career.
Still, his talent was obvious and at times enough.
Vegas beat Bill Haas and Gary Woodland in a playoff at the 2011 Bob Hope Classic (now the CareerBuilder Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation) to win in just his fifth start on the PGA TOUR. The next week in San Diego, Vegas had a share of the lead going into the back nine on Sunday before finishing third.
Jhonny Vegas was born.
He was a fun-loving kid with a million-watt smile and a compelling backstory. Vegas was just 17 years old and didn’t speak English when he arrived in Houston in the care of Venezuelan golf pro Franci Betancourt and his wife Alba before making his way to Austin.
In his first year on TOUR, Vegas averaged a shade under 305 yards off the tee, ranked in the top 50 in greens in regulation and if he could ever figure out how to putt consistently appeared to be destined for stardom.
Instead, his shoulder continued to get worse. As the song goes, the back bone is connected to the shoulder bone and the shoulder bone is connected to the neck bone.
“My back started to overcompensate; I’d never had back or neck issues before that,” Vegas said. “My left foot was hurting, too, for the same reason.”
Just three starts into 2013 -- all missed cuts -- Vegas’ shoulder gave out. He underwent surgery and missed the rest of the season.
Vegas returned in 2014 and saved his card with a couple of top 10s in the second half of the year, but in 2015 missed the cut nine times in 27 starts with just one top-25. He finished the year 153rd in the FedExCup standings and is playing this season on past champion status.
Jhonattan Vegas interview after winning at Bob Hope
But it was a meeting with House, after the Northern Trust Open in early 2014, that Vegas hopes will help lead to a turnaround.
“No one knows shoulders better than Tom,” said Vegas’ coach Kevin Kirk. “I called him and said, ‘I’ve got this kid from the PGA TOUR who I think could use your help.’”
House, who has spoken at the Titleist Performance Institute a number of times and whose resume includes having worked with quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer, among others, began working with Vegas and since the two met has maintained a close relationship with the 31-year-old, who still works regularly with one of House’s assistants in Texas.
“His shoulder is great, super strong,” Kirk says. “Tom helped him understand how it works, how the swing works.”
Adds Vegas, who grew up a baseball fan rooting for countrymen Andres Galarraga and Omar Vizquel: “Meeting Tom was a turning point for me. I was focusing so much on my shoulder itself; there’s a lot more to it. It was kind of fun, too, being a baseball fan that I am.
“Physically, I’m in the best place I have been in in years.”
Though his status this season is limited, Vegas so far has made good on the opportunity.
In five starts, he already has two top 10s, including a tie for fourth at the Sanderson Farms Championship. He’s also able to work out and practice regularly.
All of it has restored Vegas’ confidence.
“The toughest part of winning that first year was the expectation it created,” Vegas said. “I was trying to push myself harder than my body could go. It’s tough enough to compete when you’re healthy, but when you’re thinking about (the injury) all the time it’s even harder.”
When Vegas first started working with Kirk, he told the coach he wanted to be one of the top players in the world. The road is never as easy as it looks, of course, and often takes unexpected turns.
“The good news is all sorts of people have fought their way back,” Kirk said.
Vegas made other changes, too, improving his fitness regimen, dedicating more time to practice and changing caddies with veteran Ruben Yorio, Angel Cabrera’s former looper, now on the bag. He’s also working with Dave Stockton to improve his putting.
As Vegas made his way to Palm Springs, California, for this week’s CareerBuilder Challenge, the same tournament he won five years ago, he turned reflective.
“I was thinking about the five years it’s been when I was driving here,” he said. “I can’t believe it has been that long. But at the same time I have to put things in perspective, and you’ve got to have a good time and a good attitude.”
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