Golf

Jhonny Vegas steals show from Tiger

Jhonattan Vegas is one of golf's hottest and most entertaining players at the moment.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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SAN DIEGO

Maybe drawing the curtain on the Tiger Woods era isn't as much about Woods and whether he can come back as it is about the passage of time?

This occurred to me on Sunday as I watched Woods forlornly record his worst-ever finish at Torrey Pines and then watched Jhonny Vegas play a mesmerizing round of golf.

The charismatic rookie from Venezuela didn't win the Farmers Insurance Open; that honor belonged to Bubba Watson, who typically bounces around a golf course like a cat with A.D.D. on a hot tin roof, but on this afternoon held his nerve magnificently down the stretch.

Watson earned his second Tour win by making clutch putts on the final two holes and then surviving Phil Mickelson's dramatic attempt at eagle from 72 yards on the final hole.

But Vegas, seeking to become the first rookie to win on back-to-back weeks in almost 40 years, put his name high on the list of the 20-somethings who are changing the guard in golf.

And if he's one of the young turks to sweep in generational change, there'll be a certain symmetry to it: he has an exotic background, a black father, a big smile, no fear and a huge game. Not to mention the coolest name in the sport since, well, Tiger Woods.

And it's fitting, too, that Vegas — who learned to play by hitting rocks with broomsticks — is a child of the Woods revolution. The first tournament he remembers watching on television was the 1997 Masters, which forever changed golf.

“That's kind of when I really started watching a little golf and developing that passion of wanting to be a professional golfer,” he said.

“That's kind of one of the things that led me to be here.”

Wearing a pink shirt with a Nike swoosh, Vegas on Sunday punctuated big putts and clutch shots with fist pumps. Who does that remind you of?

But what I'll not soon forget about Vegas is what he did on the last hole.

There's so much money in professional golf these days that players seem just as happy to cash big checks as they are to win. Not to pick on Rickie Fowler, but last year while in contention, he had a 4 iron into the last par 5 at Phoenix and chose to lay up.

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Vegas on Sunday had 217 yards into the 72nd green, his ball in light rough, and took dead aim with a 5 iron.

He knew he had to hit that club perfectly, but he also knew that if he'd taken more club, he'd almost certainly end up at the back of the green, with little chance at an eagle.

With Watson in the middle of the fairway ahead of him — and holding a one-shot lead — Vegas gambled.

“Come on ball, come on!” he screamed.

“I had a pretty decent lie,” he later said.

“But I gave it a hack, and I went for it. ... I hit it good, too!”

The ball never left the pin, but it fell just short; his chances at winning drowned in Devlin's billabong which guards the front of the green.

But Vegas didn't regret his decision, even if it cost him $174,000 (the difference between tying for third, as he did, and tying for second).

“I knew I had to make an eagle and put a little pressure on (Watson),” he said.

“Even when I hit the ball in the water, I went, ‘Oh well, let's see if we can make it now.'”

It’s so refreshing talking to Vegas.

“I'm always on the go, always pushing, always going for it,” he said of his attitude.

Tiger Woods

OUT FOR NO. 1

It's been an up and down season for Tiger. Where does he sit in GolfWeek's rankings?

“I'm enjoying the moment. It's been a dream come true. . . . I'm just loving it, having so much fun. . . . You've just got to keep loving the game. That's why we're here.”

It's a challenge for Woods to love the game.

He'd only shot one round over par in 47 Tour events at Torrey Pines prior to Saturday. Now he's got three after a hapless 75 dropped him into a tie for 44th. It was the first time Woods had ever finished outside the top 10 on a course he'd won on five straight times.

“I have some work to do, there's no doubt about that,” he said.

Woods plays in Dubai in two weeks. Will he have his game together by then?

“I don't know. It's one of those things where I don't know where the end is,” he said.

And then came a curious comment.

“You never know where the end is until you're done with your playing career.”

Make of that what you will.

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