His surname couldn’t be any more American, but Jhonattan Vegas won’t be lining up for the Stars and Stripes in the Presidents Cup this week — instead he’ll become the first Venezuelan to play for the International team.
The 33-year-old Houston-based pro is proud to be able to represent his country in the prestigious golf competition at Liberty National Golf Club, New Jersey, and hopes he can inspire his country’s youngsters to achieve their dreams.
“It’s one of the biggest prides for me taking my flag and putting it in that big of a stage in the golf world,” Vegas, who is ranked 38 in the world, told CNN.
“By being successful, by doing everything I can, by trying my best, and having success, and putting my country’s name in places like the Presidents Cup.
“It’s what probably drives kids nowadays, to set goals, to shoot for high [sic], to make themselves dream about maybe one day being in the Presidents Cup, or even if it’s not golf, it’s about being successful in life.”
‘When it’s your home country it hurts’
Venezuela is at crisis point with grave social and economic problems as a result of the mismanagement of oil money and a failing government.
The country is running out of food and hospitals are overcrowded.
The White House has been critical of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro’s government, calling him a dictator and accusing him of depriving people in the name of socialist ideals.
“The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing,” President Trump told the United Nations General Assembly last week, later including the South American country in the US’ latest travel ban.
Vegas has not been back to his homeland for three years, but says he keeps a close eye on the situation “to see if we’re making some progress or we’re going backwards.”
“It’s a rough place in the world right now, lots of bad things happening,” says the golfer.
“People struggling to find food, to find medicine, to find daily basic products. So when you’re struggling in life that way and it’s your home country it hurts.
“You know I’ve got family that live there so it’s hitting me personally, too.”
‘Love my country’
Vegas, who has won $9,654,487 in career earnings since turning professional in 2008, will line up alongside 11 of the best players from outside the United States and Europe for the biennial match against the US on the New Jersey shoreline.
Australian trio Jason Day, Adam Scott and Marc Leishman and South African Charl Schwartzel are among those who will team up with Vegas over the weekend as the International team seeks a first victory since Melbourne in 1998.
But regardless of the outcome, Vegas hopes to use the stage as a platform for good.
After his Canadian Open win in July he sent a video message to the people of Venezuela. He explains he was “sending a message of support to the country that we’re not heading the right direction at this moment.”
“We’re going on a path that’s going to take us decades to recover from, so obviously taking that moment in time to show my support for my country, show that I love my country and want the best for my country,” he adds.
“I feel like it was a good time and people took it the same way.”
Closer to his adopted home, Vegas wasn’t personally affected by Hurricane Harvey, which wreaked havoc in parts of Texas, but has pledged to contribute to the relief effort by donating money.
“I think the Houston area has embraced us as athletes and they have supported us through the years, that’s the least we can do is get together and try to raise some money to help some of those people that were affected by it,” he said.