PONTE VEDRA BEACH – On a steamy afternoon that reminded him of his college days not far down the road at the University of Florida, Camilo Villegas wiped away tears not perspiration.
“I knew it was going to happen,” Villegas said as he paused to collect his emotions.
Then he revealed that his 20-month-old daughter, Mia, had been diagnosed with brain tumors and tumors on her spine in March.
“To see a little one fight for their life like this, it’s cool, man. It’s our reality, that’s what I tell my wife,” he said. “We’ve got no other option than to be strong and to support her and to send her good energy.”
Villegas, 38 and with a thin gray stubble beard these days, wasn’t sure that he wanted to talk publicly about his daughter’s illness, just as he wasn’t sure whether he could leave her side to play in this week’s Korn Ferry Challenge until his wife, Maria, all but kicked him out of the house, saying it would be good for him.
“I don’t really know where my mind is. I know where my heart is. But you also have to listen to the people that love you, and that’s what my wife said, ‘Just go out there and enjoy,’ ” he said. “Golf is what you’ve done the years, golf has given you so many great things, and little Mia is inspiring the last few months to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Villegas’s world was flipped upside down the week of the Honda Classic in late February. Villegas remembers that she cried more than normal, but he and his wife assumed their child was simply teething and took her to the pediatrician. But only a parent can really tell when something isn’t right with their child and Villegas sensed something was off when they walked into a gym.
“She was always a little monkey around the gym, and I noticed she wasn’t being the little monkey the she always was,” he said. “I don’t know why, I just kind of got a bad feeling.”
Villegas took it upon himself to call Barbara Nicklaus, who set up an initial appointment at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, where Mia is undergoing her treatments.
“They weren’t really doing scans on Sunday, but they got everybody in there for us,” Villegas said.
Mia currently is on her second round of chemotherapy and Villegas said they won’t know the prognosis until a month or two following the third round of treatment.
“I remember the first thing the doctor said, he said, ‘Listen man, if we gave you the chemo we’re going to give her, you wouldn’t make it.’ So, they can take a lot,” he said. “I remember the beginning, she kept crying and playing. I didn’t really get that. How can you cry and play? But she wanted to play. So, they’re strong. They’re strong. It’s inspiring to watch. Tough, but inspiring.”
Villegas is trying to mount his own comeback on the golf course. The four-time PGA Tour winner once reached as high as No. 7 in the world, but he began the year ranked No. 2074.
A shoulder injury has limited his play for the last couple of seasons and he hasn’t made a PGA Tour cut since the 2018 Honda Classic. His last top-10 finish was at the 2016 Valero Texas Open and he hasn’t tasted victory since the 2014 Wyndham Championship.
Villegas is playing on a medical extension and has 13 PGA Tour starts left. (He made his lone start on the Tour at the Honda Classic and missed the cut.) He’s made three starts on the Korn Ferry Tour this season, including a T-4 at the Bogota Championship, where he shot four rounds in the 60s. Spurred by the support of the hometown crowd, he held a share of the 18- and 36-hole leads.
“I felt what it feels like when you’re fighting for the championships,” he said at the time.
But golf takes a backseat for now as his daughter fights for her life.
“Whenever I feel emotionally ready, I’ll come back and play,” Villegas said.
This week he hopes to draw inspiration from his daughter and enjoy time with his brother Manuel, who caddies regularly for Luke Donald, and is on the bag this week at a place where Villegas has good memories of playing at the Players Championship.
“This is not about feeling sorry for the Villegas family, this is about sending the Villegas family good energy, support and inspiration,” he said. “Hopefully, just like I’ve had a chance to celebrate some golf tournaments, we’ll celebrate the day that she’s clean.”