By STEVE HARMON
DADE CITY, Fla. – Rafael Campos wants the rest of the United States to know that Puerto Rico has outstanding golf.
This week, the Virginia Commonwealth sophomore will get his chance to prove it on golf’s biggest stage: the PGA Tour.
Campos, from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, received a sponsor exemption to play the Puerto Rico Open March 20-23 at Coco Beach Golf & Country Club in Rio Grande. It will be staged opposite the WGC-CA Championship at Doral.
“I believe I can win,’’ Campos said of the Tour’s debut in Puerto Rico, just minutes from his hometown and on a course with which he is familiar. “I’ll be in front of my home crowd, and I’ll have a lot of friends and family going. I expect to play well.’’
Campos, 19, who goes by Rafa, oozes effervescence when talking about playing at home. In fact, this is his second event of the month in Puerto Rico. He and his VCU teammates placed sixth in the 13-team Palmas Del Mar Intercollegiate on March 10-11 at The Flamboyan in Humacao. Campos led the Rams with 75-72-72 for a 3-over 219 and T-12.
Campos, No. 407 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, showed his ability to go low Feb. 29 in the first round of the Ron Smith/USF Invitational at Lake Jovita Golf & Country Club in Dade City, Fla. Starting on the South Course’s 15th hole in a shotgun start, Campos played 12 erratic holes in even par. He tore through his final six holes in 7 under – birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie – for a 65 and five-shot lead.
“I hadn’t seen him peak yet,’’ VCU coach Matt Ball said after that first round, “but he did today.’’
Campos struggled to find the remnants of that streak on the weekend, shooting 74-77 for an even-par 216 finish and T-12. His VCU Rams placed eighth in the 18-team field. Middle Tennessee State led from start to finish, posting its second consecutive victory this spring.
Campos might be emerging as the Rams’ best player. In six rounds this spring, he is averaging 72.5 strokes. Yet, he prefers playing in the No. 5 spot.
“I like being the first one out and the first one in,’’ he said.
Campos, who carries a B average as a business major, is sturdily built. He shows decent length off the tee, though not overpowering by today’s college standards: about 275 yards. He’s working on consistency with the driver and knows the importance of setting up the rest of his game.
Campos enters the meaty part of VCU’s schedule as a proven collegian, though only in his second season. He won the Argonaut Invitational in Pensacola, Fla., last spring, leading VCU to the team title. He had two other top 10s. He described both of his fall seasons as “horrendous,’’ adding that he plays his best golf in the spring.
That could be key as he turns his attention toward the island this week and Puerto Rico bids for a regular spot on the Tour calendar.
“He’s a superstar in Puerto Rico,’’ said Ball, who is in his eighth season as VCU’s coach. “He’s one of their best amateurs.
“He has a very simple swing, a low center of gravity, and that helps keep it simple. He has wonderful hands and coordination. He has to grow, like any sophomore in college, but he’s a good, smart kid.’’
This week, he’ll face his biggest test to date.
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Steve Harmon is Golfweek’s deputy editor. To reach him e-mail email@example.com.