Jhonattan Vegas: Finishing strong
Most two-year-olds do not have a care in the world in their fledgling childhood. Being a toddler is about perfecting those short, awkward strides on the living room floor, making the transition to eating solid foods and putting names with faces of delighted relatives. Small children are short in temper and short in stature but typically are not worried about their short game on the golf course.
Unless you were a two-year-old named Jhonattan Vegas.
"I have a picture of me taken when I was two where I was hitting real golf balls with a small set of plastic clubs," said Vegas, one of the University of Texas' top returning senior men's golfers. "I must have thought it was a good sport to play, because I really got into the game."
Yes, Vegas certainly got into the game. He grew up in Venezuela playing golf alongside his three brothers and his parents. A natural athlete, Vegas enjoyed participating in a number of sports, including baseball, swimming and tennis. But, a love of golf that blossomed at such an early age continued to progress through Vegas' youth, and it became apparent he had more than a passing interest in the sport.
"I really liked those other sports, but my whole family played golf, and I saw golf as something I would continue to enjoy," Vegas said. "When you're out on the course, it is just you and the golf course. It was more challenging to me than playing a sport like baseball. But, there is something more to golf, and I was always more passionate about golf."
Vegas' passion paid off, and as he grew in stature, his golf game flourished at a similar pace, allowing him to become one of the top junior players in Venezuela. Vegas was never dissatisfied with his abilities while playing as a teenager, but he felt a move to the United States - a nation with abundant golf courses, resources and teaching professionals - would allow him to take his game to the next level.
"I realized it was a big sacrifice," Vegas said, "but that's what I wanted to do. I knew if I wanted to become one of the best players that I needed to be in the United States. I knew when I was 14 or 15 that I needed to be in the U.S. at some point."
Vegas relied on the advice of some fellow Venezuelans before making the final decision to come to the United States.
"I had friends back home who came to the U.S. to play golf before I did, and they talked about the opportunities here to play golf and go to school at the same time," Vegas said. "We don't have that in Venezuela, so once I became aware of what was here, in terms of those opportunities, I made it a priority to get to the United States."
Vegas left his homeland for Houston in August of 2002 to work alongside a golf instructor with whom he was familiar in Venezuela. The move to Texas presented its share of challenges. Coupled with lingering homesickness after departing his family and the only land he ever knew, Vegas encountered difficulties learning English in his new homeland.
"It was difficult because I was trying so hard to speak English, but there are so many Spanish speakers in Houston, and they all wanted to speak Spanish with me. It took a while to become accustomed to the language, but it worked out."
Vegas excelled on the golf course while eliminating the language barrier, capturing three junior tournaments in the Houston area and qualifying for the PGA's Houston Open. UT coach John Fields offered Vegas the opportunity to become a Longhorn, and although Vegas was sold on the UT program, the school and its golf facilities, another pair of obstacles remained before he could compete at Texas.
"It was difficult to take the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) with English as my second language, and I knew if I didn't pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) that I wouldn't have a shot to play here. I got to a point where I needed to pass, and I did."
Vegas enjoyed a breakout season during the 2005-06 campaign, leading the Longhorns at three tournaments and placing fifth at the Big Island Intercollegiate in Hawaii and the Hall of Fame Invitational in Houston. His success continued throughout the summer in a return home to Venezuela, when he won the National Amateur Championship in Maracaibo.
"I played well over the summer, and that gave me a lot of confidence for this season. This year is the most important year for me. I prepared for this moment over the summer, and I want to have as a strong of a season as possible. I'm going to play with all my heart."
Win or lose, Vegas plays his final season at Texas with a fondness for the collegiate student-athlete experience offered at UT.
"It has been an incredible journey here for me, and I have enjoyed it as much as I possibly could. I have had a really good time and have learned to effectively manage school and golf at the same time."
Vegas aspires to play on the PGA Tour, but the chance to play professionally is far from his mind as he continues his senior season.
"I'm focusing on finishing the season strong and graduating. I want to have a good year and finish school and worry about making it to the (PGA) Tour later."
After all, Vegas is not two years old anymore. He is 22 and has other things on his mind, now.