Vegas playing for his people at Presidents Cup
Venezuelan using his platform to draw attention to his homeland's plight
October 01, 2017
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Jhonattan Vegas' father talks about his son's path to the Presidents Cup
JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Jhonattan Vegas misses the memories. It’s been nearly three years since he last visited Venezuela because of the political instability that has rocked the country. “It feels like a decade, to be honest,” he says. He used to return to his homeland annually, and each visit was a chance to see family and friends and reflect on the stories that make up his improbable path to the PGA TOUR.
“Even though Houston is my home right now, there’s nothing like Venezuela. It’s the place that I grew up, where I have my roots,” Vegas says. “That’s one of the things I miss about being home, is reliving a lot of those stories.”
He grew up on a nine-hole course in a Venezuelan oil camp, hitting rocks with a broomstick when he started the game as a toddler. He fondly recalls the nights that his father, Carlos, drove overnight to tournaments so that Jhonattan could sleep before teeing off the next morning. Or the times their car broke down in the middle of nowhere, stranding them in a rural area until help arrived. At 17, Jhonattan left Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez’s government had declared war on the game, to move to the United States. He arrived in Houston with his clubs, a bag of clothes and 10 words of English in his vocabulary.
“Not having a ton and fighting to get to where I’m at right now, … that makes the journey a lot more fun,” he says.
Jhonattan, 33, is now a three-time PGA TOUR winner and making his Presidents Cup debut this week at Liberty National. He is the first golfer from Venezuela to play this event, though his most successful season comes during a tumultuous and tragic year for his country. More than 100 people have been killed this year in protests against the government.
“To him, the painful situation of the country makes him feel a lot of pain and emotions and tarnishes a bit the fact that he is playing the Presidents Cup,” Carlos says through a translator. “His joy, that all the South Americans feel, has been overshadowed by this situation.”Jhonattan Vegas hit rocks with a broomstick when he first began playing golf in Venezuela. (Courtesy of Vegas family)
The country has plunged into chaos while Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, has seized control of the government. Severe shortages of food and medicine have put Venezuela's citizens in peril, while falling oil prices and hyperinflation have sent the economy into an abyss. A February study revealed that 75 percent of the population had lost an average of 19 pounds, while a third of citizens were eating two or fewer meals per day. Eighty-two percent of households were living in poverty and 93 percent didn’t earn enough to cover basic food needs, according to Venezuela's Living Conditions Survey.
“We’re getting to the point that the country is on such a horrible path that no matter your political views or who you are or what you do, we have to get our country moving in a whole different direction,” Jhonattan says.“The more we can ... be outspoken and make people aware of it, that’s the only tool that we have that can hopefully have an impact on shaping our country the right way."
Two months ago, he used his third PGA TOUR victory as an opportunity to speak out against the government. Sitting next to the trophy from the RBC Canadian Open, Jhonattan directed his phone on himself and spoke words of support to the people in his homeland (the following is an English translation of his message):
“This is not a moment to be happy, personally as a Venezuelan, due to everything that is happening in our country, all the deaths that have occurred since the past few months. The truth is, my third victory on the PGA TOUR is something very beautiful and special. However, I can’t be happy, because of everything that is going on in our country, and all the suffering that our people have every day.
“I feel that I should express my feelings at this moment. Thank you all for the support that I have been receiving on social media, and all the messages that you have sent me to win here.
“This is something that I would like to dedicate to my country, Venezuela, for everything that it has given me until now. Venezuela deserves the best of us. Venezuela is more than us. Venezuela had and has been here. We need to take care of it, to do everything that we can for our country. Our country deserves the best. This is for you, this is for Venezuela. Let’s fight for our country and for the end of this government that doesn’t represent anybody. I love you all and Viva Venezuela.”There’s nothing like Venezuela. It’s the place that I grew up, where I have my roots.
The same day as Jhonattan’s victory at Glen Abbey, an election was held for a Constituent Assembly that would nullify the opposition-led legislature, effectively giving Maduro unobstructed authority. Neighboring countries questioned the election’s legitimacy and rejected the result. The United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called the vote a “sham election.” Citizens protested in the streets, and the government responded with water cannons, rubber bullets and batons; at least 10 people were killed, according to The New York Times.
The unrest, and the well-being of his family in Venezuela, has dominated Jhonattan's' thoughts this year.
"Having some success actually hurts my family there because obviously I put myself and my family in a whole different spotlight," he says. "That attracts unwanted attention. It’s been hard to deal with that, making sure that everyone is safe. We have been fortunate enough that nothing crazy has happened, but you can’t take it for granted."
Politics and sports are often intertwined, though the golf course is rarely the site of such statements. Jhonattan feels compelled to speak about the situation, despite the fear of government retribution or crime against his family in Venezuela.
“Jhonny is above all things a Venezuelan,” says his longtime swing instructor Kevin Kirk, who lived in Venezuela as a child. “Things in the country aren’t great now, but he’s proud to be a Venezuelan, he’s proud to be from South America. One thing about Jhonny that may be a little different from other kids, he definitely is more motivated by things outside of him, like representing his country. That stuff is more fulfilling for him than doing things for himself.
“Jhonny loves his country. Historically, we’ve tried to kind of make him aware that, say what you want to, but there’s consequences to what you say. He’s historically been more guarded, but I think the state of affairs in Venezuela currently and the fact that several of his other peers had spoken out and started being more vocal -- combine that with the adrenaline from winning a golf tournament -- and it was probably the perfect storm, the perfect time to make a statement.”
Por ti mi Venezuela querida. Quiero verte sonreír de nuevo con un gobierno que te represente. Necesitamos una mejor Venezuela. 🇻🇪🇻🇪🇻🇪🇻🇪🇻🇪🇻🇪 pic.twitter.com/LwvoAefHAv— Jhonattan Vegas (@JhonattanVegas) July 31, 2017
Kirk, who lived in Venezuela from 1968-1975, has fond memories of his years there. The Texan remembers the strong ex-pat communities that congregated around the country’s oil fields. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, according to Forbes, and the country was enriched by its exports. It was once a prosperous, relatively stable country. Venezuela is where Kirk says he fell in love with golf. He took lessons from Franci Betancourt, who represented Venezuela in the World Cup three times, and remembers American stars coming to the country to play in winter tournaments on some of the country’s classic courses.
Jhonattan had a joyful childhood, as well. Each afternoon, he’d ride his bike from school to the local golf course and play with the other kids living in the camp.
“It was a great life,” he says.
That changed when Chavez was elected in 1998. Ever since, Venezuela’s politics have had an impact on Jhonattan's family and his career. Chavez declared the game a sport for the bourgeois and began shutting down its courses, including the course where Jhonnattan learned the game, Morichal. Carlos ran the food concession at the course, but lost his business after signing a recall petition against Chavez in 2003.
Carlos is not surprised that his son has spoken out.
“I think that at that moment he was thinking about our foundation for children who live in poor conditions and abandonment,” Carlos says. “He is saddened by the fact that he cannot continue helping because the situation in the county hasn’t allowed it. Canada was a springboard to speak out to the leaders and say, ‘It is time. Please give the country a chance to rise and allow him to do what he can as a human being.’”
The Jhonattan Vegas Foundation was founded to help underprivileged children in Venezuela, but its efforts have been stifled by the government. Carlos says he recently received an email from a children’s hospital in their hometown of Maturin, asking for ventilators. They need to get the state’s authorization before the ventilators can reach the hospital, though. It has become increasingly difficult to get goods into the country. “We are trying,” Carlos says. “The children in our hospital are dying.”
“It’s definitely frustrating seeing what’s happening and not being able to do much to help," Jhonattan says.
For now, all he can do is speak.