Less than a month after losing his 22-month-old daughter to cancer, Camilo Villegas didn’t know what to expect when he returned to competitive golf on Thursday.
What he did know was that he had the support of the golf world and that no tournament would be more fitting for his return than the Korn Ferry Tour’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship at Ohio State’s Scarlet course.
On July 26, Mia Villegas died after a months-long battle with brain and spinal tumors. She was treated at the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, named for Jack Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, both Columbus natives.
“The PGA Tour is unbelievable when it comes to charity,” Villegas said. “Jack and Barbara have done an unbelievable job. I was at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital for four months in Miami and it became family. Obviously, Jack and Barbara are very involved with the area, with the Memorial, with this tournament.”
Villegas, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour, has played the Memorial 11 times. The 38-year-old from Colombia shot a 1-under-par 70 on Thursday, but the score, obviously, was secondary.
“It feels great to be here,” Villegas said. “Golf has been way too good to me, and obviously we’ve been through some tough times the last four, five months.
“But life keeps going. I can’t control and I can’t change the past. I can definitely have a good attitude and kind of shape my present and then see what’s coming up in the future.”
Villegas’ brother Manuel caddied for him in the first round, and he is grateful to be staying with the family of NHRA driver Jeg Coughlin Jr., who hosted him during his weeks at the Memorial. That aided his comfort level, but there was no way to know how he’d feel in his first tournament since mid-June.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I was patient,” Villegas said. “I’m just happy to be playing golf.”
Not having spectators because of COVID-19 was both a blessing and a disappointment, he said.
“(It’s) good because it was a quiet round of golf with the other two guys, their caddies and my brother, and bad because the fans kind of lift you up, especially under circumstances like this,” Villegas said. “I’ve been feeling the good energy from everywhere — PGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour, golf world, non-golf world — and I think whenever the fans return, I’ll keep feeling that energy and it will get me going.”
He certainly will have the support of his fellow golfers.
“It’s something that I can’t imagine — losing a child — but we love having him out here,” said Jimmy Stanger, among the early first-round leaders after shooting a 65. “It’s an inspiration to all of us.
“I think it’s something that just makes us understand that golf is a game. It’s something that we play for a living and it’s fun, but it’s not what life is all about. So we’re thankful for him to be out here playing with us, and our thoughts and prayers go out to him.”
Mia loved rainbows, and since her death, players on the PGA, Korn Ferry and Champions tours have worn rainbow ribbons as a tribute. Villegas will transform his charitable foundation into Mia’s Miracles with the mission to help families facing similar circumstances as he and his wife, Maria, have. Mia was the couple’s only child.
“My wife is very excited to get our foundation going,” he said. “We have a great opportunity to give back to help others and just to turn all this experience into something positive.”