Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 11, 2012

PGA Tour’s Spiderman, Lost In The Desert

Thanks to his endorsements by the likes of MasterCard and State Street Global Advisors, one can still see Colombian golfer Camilo Villegas on television fairly frequently. He’s there with Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and Tom Watson waiting on a slow foursome enjoying a “priceless MasterCard moment” on the famous 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. Change the channel and he’s in his trademark Spiderman crouch examining his lawn before telling a young boy with a mower to take another eighth of an inch off in an ad for the investment company. But where golf fans haven’t seen Villegas of late has been on the course at a PGA Tour event on a Sunday afternoon.

Last year was a tough one for Villegas. In 2011 he played in twenty-five PGA Tour events but missed the cut eleven times. Still when he made it through to the weekend he played reasonably well, recording four top-10 finishes in the fourteen events where he made the cut. While his $1.2 million in earnings marked the lowest total of a Tour career that began in 2006, that was till good enough for 77th place on the money list, well above the 125th place cut line for keeping one’s playing privileges.

But if 2011 was tough, then the season that ended this weekend was a disaster for the 30-year old. Once again he had trouble even making it to the weekend, missing ten cuts in twenty-five starts. But unlike the previous season his play did not improve when he did go four rounds. Villegas finished the year with no top-10’s and just four results in the top 25. His winnings sank to just over $490,000, sending him tumbling down the money list to 144th place. In 2011 Villegas finished 49th at the Masters and then missed the cut in the three remaining major championships. This season he failed to even qualify for the starting field in any of the four tournaments touring pros prize the most. The golfer who was once ranked 7th in the world ended the 2012 season 214th in the Official World Golf Rankings.

Just a few years ago the outlook for Villegas was so very different. He drew attention right from the start of his rookie season, when he had two second place finishes and a third at the 2006 Players’ Championship, all in just his first nine starts. His solid play earned him fans, and his muscular physique won him groupies. Add to those factors his unique approach to lining up putts, in which he hovers parallel to the ground while balancing on one foot, and Spiderman quickly became one of the most recognizable members of the Tour.

After winning more than $3.5 million in his first two seasons, Villegas broke into the winner’s circle in 2008. After finishing in the top-10 at both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, he won the BMW Championship, the third event in the Tour’s four-week FedEx Cup Playoff series. On the way to his two-shot win over Dudley Hart, Villegas recorded 27 one-putt greens over the tournament’s final 44 holes. One week later at the Tour Championship, he started the final round five strokes off the lead. But by day’s end he had caught leader Sergio Garcia, and then beat the Spaniard in a playoff for his second Tour victory. The back to back wins capped a year in which Villegas earned more than $4.4 million while finishing 7th on the money list and continuing what to that point was a steady climb up the world rankings.

But golf is one of the hardest sports for a competitor to maintain a consistently high level of play year in and year out, making all the more remarkable the achievements of those who do. This weekend world number one Rory McIlroy wrapped up the European Tour’s money title, the Order of Merit, with a 3rd place finish at the Singapore Open. Having already won the PGA Tour’s money title, McIlroy became just the second golfer to capture both crowns in the same year, following in the footsteps of Ryder Cup teammate Luke Donald who did it last year. In addition to the twin money titles, McIlroy won four times on Tour, including his second major at the PGA Championship. Now long forgotten in the celebration of McIlroy’s dominant season is how all of the golf media were wondering what was wrong with the 23-year old superstar’s game when he missed the cut in three straight tournaments back in late spring.

As we now know, McIlroy had nothing more than an off month. For golf fans, witnessing a far more precipitous fall such as Villegas has endured is a painful thing to watch. The Colombian added a third PGA Tour win early in 2010 at the Honda Classic; but since then victories have been absent and just playing well enough to make it to the weekend has often been a hard challenge. That’s why one had to cheer when Villegas ran off three straight birdies late in his opening round at the season-ending CMNH Classic, played on a pair of courses at Walt Disney World. His suddenly hot putter helped him to a first round 65, just one stroke off the pace set by Charlie Wi. It speaks volumes to how lost Villegas has been throughout the year that his 7-under round last Thursday was the best score he had posted since a 63 in the opening round of the Humana Challenge. The latter was his very first competitive round of the season, all the way back in January.

Unfortunately one good round does not a tournament make, and Villegas spent the rest of the weekend slowly drifting down the leader board as he failed to break 70 in any of the final three rounds. In the end his 8-under par total of 280 left him tied for 28th, and a $31,000 pay check only moved Villegas from 150th to 144th place on the year’s final money list. That means his next stop will be the second stage of the Tour’s three-stage qualifying tournament, as he fights to keep full playing privileges for 2013.

Whatever happens at Q-School, Villegas should still have plenty of opportunities to play next year. He remains enough of a fan favorite that many sponsors are likely to offer him one of the handful of exemptions available at each Tour stop for players not already in the field. The good news for golf fans is that when he does tee it up again, Villegas says he will be doing so with a new attitude. After his fine play on Thursday, he admitted that his two years of poor performance had soured him on the game. Only recently did he have the epiphany of realizing how lucky he is to be doing what he’s doing, traveling the world playing a game, and getting paid handsomely while he’s at it. Villegas says that with that realization his new attitude is “Life is good. Just keep going. I mean, who knows? Just take it one shot at a time.”

A new and improved attitude alone doesn’t guarantee that Camilo Villegas can fight his way back to being the PGA Tour star that he once was. But lots of golf fans will be hoping that it’s a start; and that they’ll again see Spiderman more often than just during the commercial breaks.

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