By Tim Liotta
Camilo Villegas completes unexpected turnaround in PGA Tour victory
Marking Camilo Villejas's PGA Tour victory in Bermuda back to his last PGA Tour victory nine years ago does disservice to just how bright his star shined six years prior.
Villegas burst onto the PGA Tour scene as a 24-year-old, posting a pair of runnerup finishes and a T3 at the Players Championship over a seven-week period in early 2006. Known for this colorful outfits, he was voted the "sexiest player on tour, Tiger Woods included" by Golf Digest in June that year.
He was Spider-Man, possessing the physical ability to balance on his right foot, stretch out his left leg, and get his chest and head almost to the putting surface as he attempted to read a green.
In 2007, he lost in a playoff at the Honda Classic, the highlight of a year that saw him post six top-10s in 24 starts.
The native of Columbia reached his crescendo in 2008, finishing T9 at the U.S. Open, T4 at the PGA Championship in a year he capped with back-to-back PGA Tour playoff victories.
Villegas posted his first PGA Tour win in that year's BMW Championship, and followed it up a week later with a victory at the PGA Tour Championship, rallying from five shots back in the final round and defeating Sergio Garcia in a playoff. He reached No. 7 in the Official World Golf rankings that September, and remained in the top 10 through May, 2009.
He scored his third career PGA Tour victory in March, 2010 at the Honda Classic, but his play continued to fall off over the next two 2+ years, to the point where he finished 2012 ranked 251 in the OWGR.
His win in 2014 came after a stretch of 25 events in which he missed seven cuts and was able to post just one top-25 finish.
"It's been three and a half years of no wins," Villegas said afterward. "Part of the game, I guess. Part of a pro golfer's career."
A far longer part of a pro golfer's career lay ahead, exactly 3,378 days of hotel rooms, driving ranges, putting greens, short-game areas, tee boxes, scoring tables as he struggled to stay relevant at golf's highest level. He has not competed in a major championship since 2015.
The nine-year stretch of hard times on the golf course also included the most painful loss of all, the death of his 22-month-old daughter, Mia, to cancer after multiple rounds of chemotherapy in July, 2020. Villegas spoke of Mia immediately after his victory in Bermuda.
"Tough to put in words right now, but wow, what a ride, man," Villegas said. "You know what, I love this game. This game has given me so many great things, but in the
process it kicks your butt. Life has given me so many great things and in the process it kicks my butt, too.
"My little one up there watching."
In 2023, prior to finishing runner-up the previous week and winning the Bermuda Barracuda Championship this week, Villegas had struggled, making 18 starts in 2023 on the Korn Ferry Tour, with a single top-10 finish, and 10 more on the PGA Tour, where he missed seven cuts with a T48 in an opposite-field as his best finish.
He had signed up for Q-School for the first time since 2004. He had tried out as an on-course golf announcer.
"It hasn't been a great year, to be honest from a performance point of view," Villegas said. "It's been a great year from a kind of, kind of reshaping, retooling, overhauling, whatever you want to call it."
Through the overhaul, Villegas's goal was to play competitively as often as possible, ignoring the names on the leaderboards, signs around the golf course, the prize money or the winner's share. Just give him a chance to play.
"Well, playing the Korn Ferry this year was not hard, to be honest," he said. "A lot of people might look at it and say, well, this guy's been playing on the PGA TOUR for so
long, he's got four wins, this, that, what is he doing playing the Korn Ferry Tour," Villegas said. "Well, Korn Ferry Tour is a great place, great talent.
"Do we want to go a little backwards from the PGA TOUR to the Korn Ferry? No, but if we want to be on the PGA TOUR again since I
lost my card, I had to go there. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed being around the younger generations, talking with them, getting a little twist going to different places, but this is where I wanted to be. ... At the end of the day you've got to put together somewhat of a schedule."
In February, having dropped into the low 700s on the OWGR, Villegas made the first of several changes in an attempt to turn things around.
"I started working with Jose Campra from Argentina maybe February," Villegas said. "He was very honest with me, he said, I need a year. I was like, wow, man, I've got to play. He said, I don't care what kind of status you have at the end of the year, we're going to grind and hopefully golf becomes a little bit easier than
it's been the last few years."
Campra is a long-time swing coach from Argentina who has caddied for the like of Angel Cabrera, Emiliano Grillo and most recently Sebastian Munoz.
The next change came fortuitously, a result of the 41-year-old Villegas being named an assistant captain for the International team at the 2022 President's Cup, where he re-connected with 42-year-old Adam Scott, named as a player for the squad.
"We kind of did a little scouting trip to Quail Hollow after the Tour Championship last year before the Presidents Cup and there you get to really hang with the
guys with very little commitment," Scott said after finishing T5 on Sunday. "Camilo and I were talking about his golf and putting and I kind of - I think I introduced him to the LAB putter at that point. I at least gave him the contact of Sam at LAB."
Said Villegas: "Yeah, I guess I've got to thank Adam in a way because you're right, we did a little trip to Quail Hollow before the Presidents Cup and I was watching Adam putt with a broom. He kept rolling it so good and he kept telling me how confident he was feeling.
"At one point I'm like, OK, man, let me try it. I started trying the broom, which I didn't think I was going to go to the broom, but we started talking about the technology behind the putter. I have always been a Scotty Cameron guy, which I love, respect and thank him for all the support over the years, but then came this LAB putter and it felt good. It felt good right away.
"I tried different versions of it, different lengths, different grips, different shaft leans on it and then finally I came with one that feels very comfortable.
"My hands tend to get pretty low. With this putter I get them a little bit higher. I think my putting stroke is better. I think the technology behind it is great and I was telling Scottie earlier this week, this putter feels good, man, it feels unbelievable."
Said Scott: "He's been putting great with it. He's obviously very comfortable. In the last couple weeks has been incredible, so I'm stoked for Camilo. He's such a positive guy. To see him playing well again is nice for an old mate."
On Saturday, after the third round, Villegas expounded on his latest attempt to play professional golf at the highest level at his age.
"Let me be honest, let's tell the viewer out there, people think that we just kind of chill out here and we're very comfortable doing what we're doing, but there's a lot
of demons out here and when you've been doing it for a long time, golf is hard," Villegas said after Saturday's third round. "Everybody feels fear at some point playing golf, playing competitive golf, playing against the best players in the world. It's about looking forward to feeling that not fear, kind of reshaping that fear into something a little bit, just lowering the curve and just managing it. To be honest, there was none of that last week, which I was surprised."
Villegas has also had to tone down his desire to see results. Earlier this year, he began working on his mental approach with Carlo Genio from Chile.
"I was getting a little too rattled when putts lipped out or a hit a bad shot and I was just kind of going away, it was affecting the way I was playing," he said. "You just want it so bad. As a golfer struggling like I've struggled the last several years, I think you want it so bad you start trying so hard and things just -- the game comes and bites you. So I've been trying to let the game be the game and let my mind be calm and at peace."
Villegas has also found peace by assisting his wife, Maria, with their foundation, Mia's Miracles, whose mission "is to provide small blessings with large impacts, bringing smiles and positivity to children and families facing challenging circumstances."
"We got a lot of stuff going on. It's become her mission in life," said Villegas. "September was a big month, children awareness, cancer awareness month, we raised some good funds. There's always stuff going on.
"To see so many people smile, so many children going through tough moments like we did and just be able to just give a little smile, make their day, make a parent's day, just have the parents just be able to be with their childrenwhen they're going through tough times, because we saw in the hospital when we were
there five months, we saw a lot of kids by themselves. Obviously parents had other -- well, they should have -- they wished they were there, but they couldn't because they had other responsibilities. So we try to get those parents to be able to spend time with their children and don't have to worry about the other responsibilities, especially financially, in a tough situation and bring them smiles."
Even thought so many things have fallen into place for Villegas the last two weeks he says he still has work to do.
"I never felt so comfortable being in contention like I did the last couple weeks, to be honest," he said. "It's kind of weird, it's kind of strange. Even when I was in
contention back in the day, yeah, a few years ago, 10 or more, I didn't have this calmness.
"I've got to really analyze what happened the last couple weeks, try to replicate more often."