The Light and The Dark

Michael Dwyer/AP

If you drive east out of Medellín, over the hills and out of the valley, you’ll find my Disneyland.

When I was little, there was no better place on earth than Club Campestre. It was one of two private golf clubs in the area, and my dad was a member there. I want to tell you about this place, because all of it — its beauty, its light, its joy — it’s in me. It always will be. I have these vivid memories of playing golf, soccer, tennis. Of swimming, running, laughing — just living, really, under the Colombian sun. There was water skiing, and horses to ride. There were endless things to do. It was a magical place. And on Saturdays and Sundays, my dad would go play with his friends. He’d hand me his 2-iron (which he couldn’t hit anyway) and let me carry it around the course behind him. I wasn’t even old enough to have the strength to swing it. But I took it everywhere with me those weekends. Through the trees, into the bunkers, back into the fairway. I’d watch him and his friends hit balls that seemed like they landed miles away. And before I ever swung a club, I fell in love with golf.

I’m not that boy anymore. I’ve grown up, and I’ve felt all the wonderfulness of life, and all of its darkness, too. But my love for golf never wavered. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. And perhaps you remember me, or you can picture me way back in your head. I’m probably stretched out, a few inches above a green, reading a putt. If you do, thank you. I felt your love back then. And if you don’t, that’s O.K. I’d like to tell you a little about me, and about golf, and about why it matters so much.

I want to start with number one.

One of my first instructor’s in Medellín was named Rogelio Gonzalez. I can remember his hands. They were tough. A true golfer’s hands. I had been playing junior golf for a few years and I was doing well. I was winning pretty often and watching The Masters every spring on TV, and I was starting to dream. And Rogelio, he helped me dream. He was so positive. One of those people, you know, where their energy just sticks with you for a few days after you see them. After every lesson we’d have, he’d hold up his index finger above me and say, “Look at this finger, Camilo. What’s this?”

And I’d say, “That’s number one.”

“O.K. Go get me another number one this weekend.”

And then he’d hold up his other index finger.

“What’s this finger, Camilo?”

“Number one.”

“Who is number one?” He’d say.

“Me.” I’d say.

“I’m number one.”

Soy el numero uno.

And for a long, long time, I felt like I was on the path that Rogelio and I talked about. When I was 15, a good family friend took me on an incredible trip to see some practice rounds at the ’98 Masters. The year O’Meara won. Back in Colombia, coverage would always come on late and I never got to see the front nine on TV. So when we got there, I made sure we were the first ones in, and I walked as fast I could to the first tee. And I just kind of stood there in awe, you know? Like, It’s real. It’s actually real. I walked the front nine and I don’t think I could feel the grass under my feet. I heard the great voices of our South American commentators Paco Aleman and Silvia Bertolaccini in my head as I watched each shot.

And that was it. That started a fire in me.

I turned to my friend.

“I’m going to play here.”

I left Medellín, and I went to the University of Florida to play golf. Back home, my parents were both architects. So leaving Colombia to go to America and do something completely different … it was scary. It was exciting, too, of course. But the unknown was exactly that: unknown.

Stan Badz/PGA via Getty

I did my best every season and I was fortunate enough to be an All-America all four years. And I think it was because I had this secret weapon. Naivety. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Of course, when I got out on Tour and I saw guys like Tiger and Vijay and Ernie and Freddie, I knew who they were. And it made me a little nervous, for sure. But I wasn’t afraid. It was just golf. It was just me and a 2-iron in the sun.

And then, one day in 2005, I had to read a putt on the Korn Ferry tour. I was grinding, trying to get my Tour card. Trying to get to The Masters. So I’m out there, and I’ve been putting like crap. It just wasn’t working the last few weeks. For me, I really liked when the green was elevated, when you could walk down off the side and get your eyes almost level with the surface — to really be able to see all the slopes and twists and turns of the putt. But this course was pretty flat. I was having trouble seeing the line all week. And I don’t know what came over me, but I’m looking at this 12-footer, and I just started getting lower, and lower, and lower, and lower…. And I don’t know why at that point I just didn’t lie down on the ground. But, anyway, there I was. A few inches from the grass, eyes behind the ball, just trying to see where the darn thing would go.

And I made it.

Next hole, 14-footer. So I tried it again.

Made it.

And then I never missed another putt again and won 25 majors.

No, I’m kidding. But it really did help me.

And my agent texted me soon after saying everybody keeps talking about it.

“Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it.”

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR via Getty

I never meant it as a way to show off, or be weird — I was just trying to get that little ball in the hole, you know? It’s a hard thing to do!!

I’d be at events that year and people would ask for it, so I’d give it to ’em, right. Like I love bringing joy to people, too. I want people to come out and feel how much passion I have for the game. I want it to be contagious. It just became this thing that connected me with so many people. I loved that. I really did.

I’ve always been someone who fed off of energy. And when I had that connection with the crowd, with myself, with my game — it made me feel like anything was possible. I think that’s what happened in the fall of 2008. I’d been close to winning a few times on Tour. I’d finally played in The Masters. I’d gone toe-to-toe with Tiger at Doral. I felt ready. And when I made the last putt to win the BMW Championship, a playoff event, I think you could see that emotion on my face. It was just relief. It took a little while, but I was number one on a PGA TOUR leaderboard. I had the next week off, and then at the Tour Championship I was in a playoff with one of my idols, Sergio Garcia. And I was number one again.

And then everything changed.

The pressure. The expectations. The attention.

Man, I changed.

I became obsessed with the world rankings. I knew when they’d reset. It was around 3:30 on Monday mornings. So I’d wake up in the middle of the night, no alarm needed, and I’d refresh until I saw my new ranking. How high can I get? Can I get to the top five? Can I stay there?

I lost touch with why I was out there. And my own internal expectations became so bloated, became so unconnected with who I actually was, that my own happiness suffered because of it. Golf, more than any other sport, has massive ups and downs. From week-to-week, year-to-year, everything can change. There are guys out here who have had tremendous careers, supporting their families and being consistently great, without ever winning. It’s so hard to be number one on a Sunday.

My love for the game became a love for results. Not the process, or each shot, each moment.

Golf became something very different to me, and the world around the game started to change, too. Equipment really advanced in the early 2010s, and I couldn’t keep up. Look, I’m not here to say the reason I’ve struggled is because of equipment, or anything like that really, it just is what it is. My swing worked better when everyone had the older equipment. And I had a hard time adjusting my move to the new stuff.

I won in 2014, and I went back to The Masters in 2015. But I never quite found the consistency I was looking for. I had a bad shoulder injury in 2018 that put me on the sidelines for about a year. And my relationship with golf really just broke down. The love was there, but I was frustrated by it, scared of it. I wasn’t me. I was biking a lot to stay fit. Long rides on my road bike. And I really thought about quitting.

My career … maybe it wasn’t what I had imagined when I stood beside the ninth green at Augusta in ’98, but it was pretty incredible. To come from Medellín and make it to No. 7 in the world? I was proud. But I was lost.

And then in the fall of 2018, we met Mia.

Courtesy of Camilo Villegas

My wife, Maria, and I had our first child. Our lovely daughter. She brought so much joy into our lives, it’s almost impossible to describe. I wasn’t focusing on golf as much anymore, and I almost didn’t care, in a way — because I was happy. We were happy. We had the most beautiful little girl in our lives. Mia’s smile, man. If I could bottle that feeling she gave me when I saw her smile? I’d be good forever. Really.

I know many of you know her story. We lost our little angel in July of 2020. Mia was diagnosed earlier that year with brain cancer. She battled so hard. And she showed us a strength we never knew existed. But it was time for her to rest.

In the five months during her fight, the support we received from everyone, including the golfing world, was incredible. I spoke to Jack and Barbara Nicklaus right away when Mia was diagnosed, and they did everything they could to help. They arranged everything for us at the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. I’m very thankful to them. The hospital staff were unbelievable, and even during our absolute darkest period, I can still think back and see the light in the people who were around us. Out of that, Mia’s Miracles was born. Her life was a miracle to us, and her time with us was a gift. And Maria and I wanted her legacy to live on. So her foundation will help children and their families going through similar situations, and make sure they have all the help they need.

The outpouring of love from so many people on tour — it’s meant everything to us. The family feel of the PGA TOUR, it’s really special. To see over the years what the Tour and its players do for charity, and then to be able to take part in it, to me, that’s purpose. It’s a reminder that what we do out there on the course, it’s nothing, really. It’s small. But what we can do for so many other people’s lives? That’s big. 

Courtesy of Camilo Villegas

After Mia’s passing, it was extremely difficult for us to keep going. It’s an indescribable void. Just … I don’t even know. We missed her with all of our hearts. I felt her with me all the time. Her energy. She was full of it. It reminded me of when I was little. When I was running around Club Campestre under the sun. And as the day passed, and the light started to come back into our lives, her energy just grew, and grew, and grew inside me.

And I wanted to get back out there.

Last year, I started working with a new coach, Jose Campra. My head was there, but my game wasn’t. I sort of laid it all out there for him. I bared my soul. And he told me a bunch of things I didn’t want to hear. He told me I needed to get a lot worse before I got better. And he told me it was going to be harder than I could imagine. I didn’t like any of it.

And I couldn’t wait to get started.

I grinded more last year than maybe ever before.

Maria would come down to my simulator every night, “Hey it’s 10 p.m. You going to keep hitting balls?”

I’d been swinging the same way for 35 years. I was trying to relearn the golf swing. I hit balls for as long as my body could take it. I pushed myself as hard as I could go. I changed my team up. New sports psychologist, new caddie. And when the results weren’t there, I just kept going. I believed in what we were doing. I had Mia’s energy in me. I felt something good was coming.

And in November of last year, it clicked. I played well the week before in Mexico. And in Bermuda it finally came together. I was leading on Sunday and I could feel my mind wandering. I thought of Mia. I thought of Maria. I thought about how badly I wanted to win. My caddie, Luis, I think he saw me lost in my mind for a bit. And he reeled me in. He got me across the finish line. And when that putt when in … I know Mia was there. I looked up, and I felt everything. Light, darkness, relief. It was all rushing through me.

Number one.

My first win in nine years.

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR via Getty

I think I realized that weekend that golf now, it’s so much more than just a game I love to play. It’s a connection with people, with life itself. I’m not worried about world rankings or much of that — I just want to compete and be a part of it all. I want to show people that I’m still here. That I kept going. That I did my best.

After the win, I checked my phone the next day and I had 1,500 messages. The love, the kindness — it was really special. It took some time but I got back to every single person. Reading through them all, it really struck me how much our story had connected with people, how my win made them feel. And I know that’s because of who Mia was. Her time in this physical world was short, but her impact will go on forever. I do my best to honor her each and every day.

We have a son now, Mateo, who reminds me a lot of her. When he’s older, I can’t wait to tell him all about her. About the journey his Dad went on. From Medellín to the PGA Tour. I’ll tell him about his amazing mom. About how we never gave up.

I’ll walk with him in the sun, he’ll hold my hand. In the other, I’ll feel Mia’s fingers wrapped around mine. I’ll see her smile looking up at me. And I’ll know she’s still here.