By ERIC SODERSTROM
SAN FRANCISCO – Jhonattan Vegas stood on the Olympic Club’s 17th green Friday afternoon with what looked like the No. 1 smile in the world.
“You are Tiger Woods!” a fan from the gallery yelled, before walking toward the parking lot.
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Vegas, dressed in black shoes, black pants, a black belt, a red Nike golf shirt and a black hat stitched with that famous “TW” Nike logo, walked off the green and hopped into a golf a cart.
That big, contagious smile, the result of his 3-and-1 U.S. Amateur quarterfinal victory over 15-year-old Cheng Tsung Pan, may have also resembled a certain three-time U.S. Amateur champion.
What year is this?
“Of course, I thought about it,” Vegas, who celebrated his 23rd birthday Aug. 19, said about his Friday morning wardrobe decision. “But red is my favorite color, too.”
He said he wore the Tiger Woods hat because it was the only black hat he owns.
“Well, I just felt like today was the right day to wear (that outfit),” said Vegas, who also happens to have a bag full of Nike clubs and a Nike Sumo2 driver.
Things will look different tomorrow in his semifinal match against Colt Knost, this year’s U.S. Publinks champion, and the last Walker Cup player standing this week.
Vegas, who just finished his career at the University of Texas, is planning on wearing his school colors tomorrow, that distinctive burnt orange that has also come to be known as “Texas Orange.”
“That’s my second-luckiest color,” said Vegas, of Maturin, Venezuela, whose brother and caddie this week, Julio, has also signed to play for the Longhorns next year. “But I think today was a really important day. And I feel like red was going to give me a little more confidence, and it did.”
It showed immediately Friday morning, when Vegas crushed his opening drive down the center of the first fairway. He eventually reached the 533-yard par-5 in two, using only an 8-iron to land his approach on the smallish green.
“I hit a great driver,” said Vegas, who later drove the 286-yard par-4 seventh. “It was kind of fun.”
Only today you might say he was long like Tiger, but is there proof?
Certainly, according to Texas coach John Fields, who has been at Olympic Club all week supporting Vegas, senior Kevin Schultz, sophomore Lance Lopez and recent grad Farren Keenan.
Turn back the clock to last October’s Isleworth-UCF Collegiate Invitational, where Texas shocked college golf with a 12-shot victory over one of the year’s strongest fields.
Vegas consistently cut the corner with his tee shots on Isleworth’s 477-yard par-4 18th. The shot calls for about a 340-yard drive over trees. Only Woods, an Isleworth resident, has been known to do that, Fields said Friday.
“Jhonattan did it all three days,” he said. Vegas finished that week in a tie for 10th place, his top individual finish of the fall.
Vegas is an upbeat, well-mannered kid who moved to the United States to improve his golf game, even though he didn’t know a word of English. The following year, Vegas Monday qualified for the PGA Tour’s Shell Houston Open as an 18-year-old, averaging 305 yards off the tee.
He was certainly the highlight of a day that saw only one the day’s four quarterfinal matches get past the 15th hole, sending most of the spectators to Vegas’ side for his clinching putt at 17.
He took off his hat and raised it in the air, proving to at least the 7-year-olds in attendance that it was only a pretty good Halloween costume.
“I’m just a funny Venezuelan guy,” Vegas wrote in his media information sheet, “who likes to have fun.”
We could tell.
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Eric Soderstrom is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail [email protected]