Bob Lutz

This year, it's about more than the name

I like the way Jhonattan Vegas walks, the way he talks and for sure the way he strikes a golf ball.

It's the way a welder strikes a piece of hot iron. Sparks fly when Vegas' club head makes contact and the ball is sent hurtling through space.

But for nearly two hours Sunday at the Nationwide Tour's Wichita Open, Vegas did his best playing while he wasn't playing at all. He finished his 7-under round of 64 at around 4 p.m., then went inside — greeted by the sweet tingle of air conditioning — and had a little lunch. He visited with his caddie. He had put the low score on the board, sure, but surely the guys in the last pairing of the day — Roberto Castro and Steven Bowditch — would pass him as they tackled the back nine at Crestview Country Club.

Instead, the back nine tackled them and they went face first into the hot dirt. Castro finished the day where he started, at 19-under. And Bowditch dropped a stroke, although he went to the tee box at the par-5 No. 18 off back-to-back birdies that brought him to within a stroke. Hope vanished, though, when Bowditch's tee shot went out of bounds and he ended up with a double bogey.

Castro hit his second shot right of the 18th green, forcing a difficult chip shot over bunkers. He landed the shot near the cup, but it went past by 20 feet and his bending putt to tie skirted to the right.

A refreshed and replenished Vegas, meanwhile, never had to hit another shot and a birdie on No. 18. The win fell in his lap, although the final-round 63 created a nice, soft lap.

Vegas, a soon-to-be 26-year-old from Venezuela who played collegiately at Texas, can relate to a final round that doesn't live up to expectations. He led last year's Wichita Open by two strokes going into play Sunday and shot a 3-over round of 74 to finish in a tie for fourth, four shots behind winner Chris Tidland.

Vegas' immense talent was obvious, and as he left town you could imagine him shouting: "I'll be back, Wichita, and I'll bring you to your knees!"

Well, we were on one knee, at least, in appreciation of a golfer who has the charisma and the chiseled 6-foot-2, 230-pound body of a future star.

Vegas talked about how comfortable he is playing in the Wichita Open, a surprising comment considering the 100-plus degree heat and humidity that only jungle animals can relate to.

"I actually think I would have had an advantage in a playoff," he said. "Just to be able to relax and cool off a little bit and to feel a little fresh helped. I'm sure those other guys were getting pretty tired toward the end."

But the playoff never happened. Instead, Vegas cashes a check for a little more than $102,000, gets his first Nationwide Tour win and takes a little time to appreciate where he is and, hopefully, where he's going.

"Winning a tournament just makes things easier," said Vegas, who climbed from No. 28 to seventh on the Nationwide Tour money list. "You feel a great confidence about yourself. We're out here playing and playing and playing and playing and to be one of the fortunate ones who have a win, that's very special."

It was just a matter of time. Vegas' ball striking sets him apart and he has improved other facets of his game, although not as much as he wants to.

While Vegas leads the Nationwide Tour in driving distance at nearly 320 yards, he's only 127th in driving accuracy and 52nd in putting average. His short game has always been his bugaboo, but he says he's working hard to make it better.

"I've put a lot of time into my short game and it's something I'm fairly proud of now," he said. "But that and putting are not the strongest parts of my game. I feel like I've done some good work in those areas, but I need to keep getting better."

Vegas dialed it back in this tournament, averaging only 305 yards per drive and finishing in a tie for sixth in a category that doesn't always suit him — greens in regulation. It's a good sign for a player who has made his name professionally with his driver. If Vegas continues to improve his finesse, who knows where he'll go?

Speaking of making his name, I asked Vegas about that rather cumbersome first name of his. I suggested in a column last year than he would be better served if he went simply by 'Johnny Vegas,' writing that it's the kind of name that gets put up in lights.

At the time, one of Vegas' friends, who was following him on the course, told me he'd ask Jhonattan (pronounced John-a-than even though it doesn't look anything like John-a-than) about the notion of a change.

A year later, though, Jhonattan Vegas is in, Johnny Vegas is out.

"Johnny's not my name," Jhonattan said. "People — some friends of mine — call me Johnny sometimes. But I never grew up with that name.''

But Jhonattan, imagine the endorsements for Johnny Vegas. Imagine the flash, the bling that could go with such a colorful name.

Still not interested?

"Nobody ever called me Johnny until I came to the U.S. (in 2002)," Vegas said. "I don't really feel comfortable calling myself Johnny. It doesn't feel that way to me. Maybe when somebody else says it, OK. But to call myself that, I don't really feel like that's me.

"Jhonattan is a little long and a little complicated, but things can't be perfect all the time."

OK, Jhonattan it is. But someday when David Feherty suggests a change, remember this little conversation we had.

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