The road back for Camilo Villegas began with a detour to San Diego and a question to a caddie who wasn’t even his: “When are you going to help me?”
Villegas started what figured to be a challenging year in the Bahamas on the Korn Ferry Tour, and he meant to stay for a second tournament in the islands until he received a last-minute sponsor exemption to the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
That’s where he had a chance meeting with an Argentine caddie who is more than what he seems. For Villegas, a 41-year-old Colombian, it changed the course of his year.
Jose Luis Campra — his friends call him “Pepa” — grew up at the same course in Cordoba that produced Angel Cabrera and Eduardo Romero. He had aspirations of playing after getting a finance degree from Jacksonville State in Alabama. But then a few fruitless years on the Challenge Tour and PGA Tour Latinoamerica suggested he take a different path.
He always wanted to teach. Caddying helps pay the bills.
Campra runs an academy in Argentina. He has worked for Cabrera, Emiliano Grillo, Scott Piercy and now Sebastian Munoz. He has long been friends — nothing more — with Villegas and his brother, Manny. Latin American bonds are tight in golf.
He was at Torrey Pines in January with Munoz, and that would have been the last chance to run into Villegas. It was the last PGA Tour event Munoz played before joining LIV Golf.
“I never, ever talk golf with Camilo — never, ever,” Campra said Monday from Argentina. “I have always been a friend, but we never talk golf, even in his worst times. He played really poorly for two days. On Friday after missing the cut, he told me, ‘When are you going to help me?’”
Campra thought he was kidding. Villegas was serious.
“He never stopped being a great player, but the ball striking was not there,” Campra said. “I had a plan of what I thought would be good related to the ball flight. We spoke for 20 minutes. I said: ‘If you want me to work for you, it’s not going to be a tip. It’s going to be serious work and maybe playing worse the first month-and-a-half. Are you up for it?’ And he said, ‘Yes.”
Villegas for more than a decade hit a bullet from right to left with hardly any spin. The change Campra suggested was to a fade with a higher launch angle. It was such a radical adjustment that Campra worried Villegas might want to quit after a few months. He asked that Villegas call him twice a week, so he could at least gauge his confidence level.
That wasn’t going to be an issue. Villegas knows tough times more than most.
A shoulder injury caused him to miss all of 2019, and he felt the game was passing him by. Off the course was devastating. The following year, his 22-month-old daughter, Mia, was diagnosed with brain cancer. She died that summer.
Villegas also knows the only path is forward. His wife urged him to keep playing after Mia’s death as a way to reconnect with a game that has meant so much to him. When he agreed to change his swing, Campra preached patience, that improvement would not happen overnight.
Villegas missed the cut in nine of the 18 events he played on the Korn Ferry Tour. He missed six cuts in the eight PGA Tour events he played. He was prepared for the second stage of Q-school and not particularly happy about it. But he was willing to go because that was the way back.
Turns out there was no need for that.
With time running out on the season, Villegas was runner-up in Mexico two weeks ago, and there was hope. And then he won in Bermuda, and there was deep satisfaction.
Villegas looked so peaceful when he tapped in for par to win at Port Royal, tilting his head to the heavens. “I’ve got my little one up there watching,” he said.
“This game has given me so many great things, but in the process it kicks your butt,” he said. “Life has given me so many great things and in the process it kicks my butt, too.”
Campra could see this coming. When he went to see Villegas in July, he said he told him, “CV, I think we’re going to play in the Masters again.”
Campra is no ordinary caddie. Such was his passion for the game that when he traveled to tournaments as a caddie, he would make appointments to spend time with teachers in Singapore and Sweden, in Hawaii and California. He saw 20 of them. Most were not renowned.
“I learned the most from the less commercial teachers,” he said. “The big names didn’t teach me anything. There’s some really bright minds out there.”
He now has an academy along with a digital school equipped with video instruction. Campra works with about 30 players between professionals and amateurs.
One of them is headed back to the Masters next year.
“Life is interesting,” Villegas said after he won, his first trophy in nine years. “It goes up and down both on the personal side and on the professional side. Just got to keep a path and you’ve got to keep your mind where it needs to be. Like I said, I’m a hard worker. I love working. I love having a purpose every morning and that’s kind of what I did.
“At the beginning of the year things were not going great, it was time to do a little swing change,” he said. “I’ve never been too excited about big swing changes, but I trusted the guy I started working with, Jose Campra, and he told me he needed a year.
“I’m glad it took less than that.”