Essential Golf: A passion for the Game

Eye on the Ball

Eye on the Ball

When Camilo Villegas arrived at a personal mountaintop, having just won the Butterfield Bermuda Championship in November, 2023, for his first PGA TOUR victory in nine years, the 41-year-old tilted his head back and pointed to the sky.

Villegas was pointing toward his daughter, Mia, who died in 2020 from brain cancer when she was just 22 months old and whose spirit has been instrumental in Villegas’s return to competitive form.

One week earlier on the Mexican coastline at Los Cabos, Erik Van Rooyen won his second PGA TOUR event—the World Wide Technologies Championship—and thought not of himself but of his long-time friend Jon Trasamar who was days away from dying of cancer, dedicating the victory to him.

For both Villegas and Van Rooyen, their victories seemed built on more than the hours spent on practice tees, putting greens, and in gyms. They seemed to play with a purpose bigger than their own.

With his style and a flashy game, Villegas was one of the game’s biggest stars in 2008 when he won twice during the FedExCup Playoffs and climbed into the top 10 in the world rankings.

Later, the game and life turned a cold shoulder toward Villegas. When his daughter Mia was diagnosed with brain and spine cancer, Villegas and his wife, Maria, took their family struggle public during the early days of the Covid pandemic in 2020. After Mia’s passing, they created “Mia’s Miracles,” which supports families and children in his native Colombia and Florida who are facing medical challenges.

Villegas returned to the Korn Ferry Tour to renew his career, and was prepared to return there, when a runner-up finish at the World Wide Technology Championship and his emotional victory in Bermuda redirected the arc of his career.

“I look at where I am right now and everything that has happened, I truly believe I’m a better person. Maybe the results haven’t been there, but this journey has been pretty interesting,” Villegas said in November at the RSM Classic.

“To lose my card, to go through an injury, to lose my daughter, to create Mia’s Miracles, to go back to the Korn Ferry, to keep grinding, to have doubts, to have fears, to have tears, have smiles, all of the above. You just never know where life goes.”

Van Rooyen knows the pain of losing someone close, too. A native of South Africa, Van Rooyen came to the U.S. to play college golf at the University of Minnesota and met Trasamar there. While Van Rooyen made it to the PGA TOUR and Trasamar played small tours around the world, they remained close.

Knowing Trasamar was in the final stages of a long fight with melanoma, Van Rooyen had more on his mind in Mexico than improving his status at No. 125 on the FedExCup points list with the season’s end rapidly approaching.

Four strokes behind Villegas with nine holes to play, Van Rooyen shot 28 on the closing nine, playing for more than himself.

“I hope he’s watching. We’ve texted. I’ve just told him how much I love him and how much I miss him. All I want is to go play nine holes with him somewhere, you know. And extremely selfishly, that puts all of this into perspective,” Van Rooyen said after his victory.

Van Rooyen went from Mexico to Minnesota to be with his friend, who died on November 16, less than two weeks after Van Rooyen’s victory.

“Is it fun to win golf tournaments? Yeah, it’s fun. I’ve been playing golf since I was 8 years old, extremely competitive and we want to win. But it doesn’t matter,” Van Rooyen said.

“When I kick the bucket one day, whenever that might be, this is not what I’m going to be thinking about. I’m going to be thinking about the people that I love the most and Jon Trasamar is one of those people.”

This was first published in Essential Golf – you can read the complete magazine here.