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Camilo Villegas making an impact

A darling of the crowds and one of the biggest hitters on the PGA Tour, Colombia's Camilo Villegas has given professional golf a much-needed dose of fresh air.

The 24-year-old rookie from Medellin makes sure he enjoys himself out on the course, interacting with both players and fans, and is a noticeable figure as he strides down the fairways with his keen fashion sense.

Lemon, all-white, orange and fuchsia have featured prominently in his golfing attire so far this season and his youthful looks and athletic physique have made him hugely popular with female golf fans.

The bottom line, though, is that Villegas is a richly talented player who could become one of the game's very best over the next few years.

Having qualified for this season's PGA Tour by finishing 13th on the 2005 Nationwide Tour money list, he has vaulted to 14th in the U.S. money list with earnings of $821,571.

He has made the cut in four of his six Tour starts, tying for second at last month's Phoenix Open and also at the Doral Championship in Miami on Sunday, when he finished just one stroke behind winner Tiger Woods.

Ranked fifth in driving distance on the 2006 Tour, Villegas lies 22nd on the most accurate barometer of player form with a stroke average for the season of 70.23.

His one failing has been erratic putting, especially in the final rounds of tournaments, and it is little surprise that he languishes 102nd in the Tour's putting charts with an average of 29.19 putts per round.

For the moment, though, the Colombian fitness fanatic who was a four-times All-American at the University of Florida is determined to keep enjoying himself while he matures as a player.

"I've been saying all year that my main goal is to keep having fun and learning," Villegas told reporters after closing with a five-under-par 67 at Doral's Blue Monster course on Sunday.

"I'm not going to push anything. Hopefully the good stuff will come."

Urged on all week at Doral by supportive crowds that included friends and family, Villegas loves competing on the big stage.

In January, he was grouped with teenage prodigy Michelle Wie for the first two rounds of the Sony Open in her native Hawaii, another experience which he relished.

"I think I've learned to like big crowds," he said. "Playing with Michelle in Hawaii felt great and playing at the FBR (Phoenix Open), which has the biggest crowds of the year, was awesome."

As a former student of the University of Florida, Villegas was always likely to attract large galleries at Doral but his own expectations were exceeded.

"It was just unbelievable," he said. "It's hard to describe in words.

"I knew there were Colombian people in Miami, but I didn't know there were that many. It was really fun and they motivated me."

Villegas, who made his PGA Tour debut in the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, is determined to do as much as he can to elevate the game in his home country.

Handily, the last three rounds of the Doral Championship were screened live on television in Colombia, the first of 30 PGA Tour events expected to be televised there this year.

"If there's anything I can do to grow the sport in Colombia and give some people some smiles, that's what I'm here for," he said.

"Golf in Colombia is very small, and it's growing slowly. We've only got about 50 golf courses. It's all about soccer down there, and that's just the reality of it."

The fashion-conscious Villegas was delighted with his own performance last week at Doral, amid the hype and hoopla that always follow Woods and Mickelson when they are in contention.

"I never thought about the fact that I have Tiger up there (on the leaderboard)," he said.

"I can't control what others do, so I was just trying to focus on myself. And I'm proud of the way I handled myself during the week."

As to the future, Villegas plans to stick to the formula which has so far worked for him.

"I just think I've got to keep doing what I'm doing," he said. "I've been working hard in the weight room and there are some little things I need to work on.

"I've been working hard on my swing and I've been working hard on my mental game."

He then repeated what is rapidly becoming his mantra: "Playing golf, just keep having fun, keep learning. We'll see what happens."

March 8, 2006


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