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Camilo Villegas’ return to action a welcome diversion for a heavy heart

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Now 38 years old, with a bum shoulder, it’s harder for Camilo Villegas to contort himself into that famous Spiderman pose. His ripped arms are slightly smaller. His clean-shaven look has been replaced by a stubble dotted with gray specks.

And those flowing brown locks?

Buzzed off.

A show of solidarity for Mia.

A teary-eyed Villegas revealed earlier this week that his 20-month-old daughter has a brain tumor and tumors on her spine. She’s currently undergoing a second round of chemotherapy, and her prognosis is unclear. All Villegas knows is that she’s in pain, she’s a fighter, and right now she needs our prayers.

Villegas didn’t want that news to go public. Since becoming a global superstar in the mid-2000s, when he won four times on the PGA Tour and ascended as high as No. 7 in the world rankings, he’s enjoyed transitioning into a quieter, more private life. Flamboyant no more, he says low-key suits him. Gives him peace.

But this is 2020, and Villegas is a professional athlete, and with social media he figured that his peers and his fans were bound to find out eventually. As one of the most accomplished players in this week’s Korn Ferry Challenge field, the Tour had asked him to appear at a pre-tournament news conference. His agent pushed him: It’s time.

And so for about 20 minutes Wednesday, Villegas stood in front of a few reporters and a couple of cameramen and poured out his heart. How little Mia would cry at night, and while playing, but damn if that didn’t keep her from her toys. How he took her into the gym one day in Jupiter and “she wasn’t being the little monkey she always was.” How, as a parent, he just knew, deep down, something was wrong, something more serious than a toddler’s teething.

How the scans came back, revealing the tumors. How surgery ensued. And how now the fight continues six hours south on I-95.

Full-field scores from the Korn Ferry Challenge at TPC Sawgrass

Walking away from the microphone Villegas exhaled and shook his head. It was tough, but necessary. What followed over the next several hours, and well into Thursday morning, was an outpouring of support from those in the industry and the larger sports world. A snippet of the video has nearly 250,000 views. Jack Nicklaus – whose children’s hospital in Miami is treating Mia – was one of several thousand well-wishers on Twitter, writing: “This young man has supported everything Barbara and I have done to help children in need. Although his story is heart-breaking, it’s comforting to know the doctors have been there for him, Maria and little Mia. Wishing @CamiloVillegasR the best this week.”

Because, yes, after receiving his family’s blessing, Villegas was still here playing in a tournament, the first on this circuit in the past 15 weeks. At TPC Sawgrass he didn’t just have lowered expectations. He didn’t have any at all. Busy taking care of his family, he’d played only three rounds over the past three months, delaying any progress from a serious shoulder injury for which he’s still on a major medical extension.

But Monday night, he decided to commit to this restart event, and he teamed up with his younger brother, Manuel, who had caught one of the monthly humanitarian flights from Colombia. Manuel had found out about Mia’s condition in early March, while playing in a local tour event. He won the tournament but cut his celebration short. His mother had called and delivered the news.

“I was baffled,” said Manuel, 35. “At the beginning you don’t really understand what’s going on. You can’t put it together. But as the days go by, you slowly start sinking in.”

For the past few months, his role has been to keep things light. To keep his brother’s mind off of Mia’s daily struggle. “We both know it’s a tough situation,” Manuel said, “but the less we talk about it and bring it up, the more casual we make it, the better it is for all of us.”

That’s what he tried to remind Camilo before they started at 7:33 a.m. Thursday: Let’s have a fun day. Relax.

Villegas birdied his first hole. Then his third and his fourth holes, too. After chipping in to start his back nine, he was 5 under par and alone in the lead.

“Some guys are just different,” Manuel said. “Some guys have a different fire. They have something else. Different wires.”

For five hours they talked about nothing but golf – clubs and yardages and the speed of the greens. It was a welcome diversion from the medical jargon and the late-night breakdowns. A bogey on the last gave Villegas a 3-under 67, putting him a few shots off the early lead.

“It was a peaceful day out there,” he said. “My mind was clear. There was some good energy coming my way, and I felt it.”

After the round, after another emotional interview, he fell back into his competitive mode. He was a little sloppy coming in. He needed to clean up a few things with his swing.

So he headed to the range, beating balls under a relentless sun.

Anything to get away for just a little while longer.