One of the unlikeliest players in PGA Tour history shoots 64 to take Honda Classic lead

Jhonattan Vegas, of Venezuela, tees off on the 16th hole during the first round of the Honda Classic Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Jhonattan Vegas, of Venezuela, tees off on the 16th hole during the first round of the Honda Classic Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. AP

Venezuela is not particularly well-known for its golfers and golf courses.

Jhonattan Vegas knows that all too well. He started playing golf, in a manner of speaking, in Venezuela as a young child. As kids are wont to do, little Jhonny had to improvise in putting together his first golf equipment.

A broomstick and rock would have to suffice.

Eventually, Vegas found a nine-hole course in the country of his birth and his passion for the game grew and grew. So did Vegas himself — at age 34, he’s now 6-3 and 230 pounds, and can pound that dimpled, white ball.

On Thursday, Vegas put all that golf passion to good use, grabbing the first-round lead in the Honda Classic by two strokes as he fashioned a six-under-par 64.

“Obviously, I felt like I was in control pretty much all day long,” Vegas said. “This is good. Over the years this course has given me a few grey hairs. Now I have to keep my mind in a good place and keep looking ahead.”

In other words, don’t look back at some of the names just behind him on the leaderboard. There’s a quartet — Zach Johnson, Ernie Els, Lucas Glover and Ben Silverman — who stand two shots off Vegas’ pace.

Control was the key to the round for Vegas as he played all 18 without making a bogey. Starting on the 10th hole, Vegas dealt with the tougher back nine and the treacherous Bear Trap (holes 15, 16 and 17) right away.

He rose to the occasion, blistering the back with a 4-under 31, including one-under for the Bear Trap. Then he added a tidy 33 on the front.

Vegas said “patience” came into play for him on Thursday.

“It’s very hard to be aggressive around here,” Vegas said. “There’s always trouble around the corner. Even if you’re hitting it great, it’s really hard to start hitting at some of those pins.”

After Vegas left Venezuela, he ended up in Houston and at the University of Texas and earned a degree in kinesiology, which is the study of body movement. And, when you think about it, that seems to make perfect sense for a golfer.

Since swinging that broomstick in Venezuela, Vegas has done well for himself.

He has three PGA Tour victories to his credit and $10,728,608 in earnings. He won his first PGA Tour event in only his second start as a Tour member. Success in the majors has eluded Vegas, his highest finish being 51st at the 2011 PGA Championship.

Right now, Vegas’ immediate goal is to keep the momentum of Thursday going.

He’s particularly interested in the new greens at Honda and the effect on his putting.

“This is a good start to the week and I have good momentum now,” Vegas said.

“When the putts are going in, it’s a lot of fun for me.”

Other notable scores from the first round and still in the hunt: Brooks Koepka, 67; Sergio Garcia, 67; Rickie Fowler, 67; defending champion Justin Thomas, 68; Adam Scott, 72; Daniel Berger, 72.

Local connection

Three Miami-connected golfers at the Honda are fighting to make the cut. Ryan Blaum, who attended Westminster Christian School, shot a one-under 69; Erik Compton, who came out of Miami Palmetto High School and once tied for second in the U.S. Open, was at three-over 73; and Adam Svensson (Barry University) shot two-over 72.

Related stories from Miami Herald