If you’re looking for a player to pull for on the PGA Tour this season, nothing will tug the heartstrings like the story of Camilo Villegas.
For longtime followers of the Tour it’s almost hard to believe Villegas is 38. The ‘Spider Man,’ so dubbed because of his unique way of reading greens, burst onto the scene more than 10 years ago, a dashing, athletic player from Colombia. (Check out the spectacular images with this article, the work of my talented colleague and great friend Marc Serota.)
Villegas rose as high as No. 7 in the world rankings and picked up four wins on the American tour, including the prestigious Tour Championship in 2008.
He has yet to match those early years, but he’s enjoyed his share of success. Villegas has been a fixture on the pro tours, playing internationally, on the PGA Korn Ferry Tour (basically, the feeder to the PGA Tour) and on the main tour.
He was not dominant, but he was in that elite group of athletes who make a living playing professional golf. He married Maria Ochoa Mora and in 2018 the couple welcomed a baby daughter, Mia.
Things can change so fast in life.
‘YOU DON’T FORGET’
Villegas missed half the season in 2018, suffering what he called a “pinching sensation” in his shoulder on every swing. He opted rehabilitation over surgery, but dealing with nerve injuries can be tricky and take a long time to heal.
Novices may not realize the athleticism needed to play professional golf, but to perform at the level these players do means any loss of strength is a tremendous disadvantage. It would be the better part of two years before Villegas launched his comeback, returning on a medical exemption to compete in six Korn Ferry events earlier this year. His shoulder was still a question mark, but he made the cut in five events and took aim at returning to the PGA Tour.
Then, in February, Camilo and Maria Villegas received devastating news. While taking their daughter out to play one day, the couple noticed Mia was not running around like she usually did. A series of tests at the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami – with Jack’s wife Barbara helping the couple find the best doctors for Mia – revealed the 1-year-old had developed malignant tumors on her brain and spine.
As part of his charity work, Villegas had visited sick children many times at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where the Tour hosts an annual event.
“I remember walking in the lobby and seeing all the parents there. That to me was the really hard part. All of a sudden, I was one of those parents at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital,” Villegas told Golfweek.
There was an outpouring of support from the pro golf community. But chemotherapy and other aggressive treatments could not shrink the tumors, and Mia passed away in July at age 22 months.
How do you move on from that? You don’t. You just try to go forward.
“We kind of learn how to do it with what we do for a living, to forget the bogeys and the failure. You can’t live in the past. I’ve managed to do that a little bit to our family situation. It’s not forget – let’s be very clear. You don’t forget your child. It’s accept. Once you’re able to accept the past, it changes the whole perception,” Villegas told the magazine.
Villegas now looks at his shoulder injury as something of a blessing. While he could not play golf, he was home to spend time with Mia. “I was there for her,” he says.
BACK OUT THERE
After Mia’s passing, Villegas renamed his foundation. It is now “Mia’s Miracles,” dedicated to preserving her memory by helping other sick children and their families.
And he is back on the golf course. He and his wife are doing their best, hoping to revive Camilo’s career and trying to have another baby. Doctors have told them there is no reason to be concerned, that Mia’s cancer was a tragic anomaly.
The PGA Tour handed out small rainbow pins to all the players to honor Mia, who loved rainbows, and many of the players continue to wear them at every event. You can look for them pinned to their hats. Villegas is beloved on Tour and even his fellow competitors want to see him succeed.
“Every week I come out here, there’s four more guys that I haven’t seen,” Villegas said in Golfweek. “We forget COVID for a moment. They’ll say, ‘Come here, I’ve got to give you a hug.’”
As former PGA Tour player John Maginnes said on his satellite radio show, On Tap With Katrek and Maginnes, “It’ great just to see him back out there.”
The early signs are encouraging. In just his second PGA Tour start two weeks ago, Villegas started with a shaky first round but kept improving. He shot a 66 in the final round and notched a top 25 finish, the best in years for a player who has not won since 2014. His wife has joined him on tour. He calls it “a process.”
There are big stars on the PGA Tour and there are dozens of players who are trying to make it. They can seem almost anonymous to fans. We see them out there, but we don’t know their stories. We don’t know where they’ve been.
Villegas has traveled the path from phenom to grieving father, a man trying to go on with his life and career after suffering the most devastating loss for any parent.
He doesn’t have invitations to the major championships. You won’t see him in The Masters next month. But he’s back out there. Villegas will next tee it up at the PGA Tour’s Bermuda Championship starting Oct. 29.
It would be wonderful to see him among the leaders. In the ways that matter, he already is.