‘Mia, thanks for inspiring me’: After unimaginable personal tragedy, Camilo Villegas is a champion again

SOUTHAMPTON, BERMUDA - NOVEMBER 12: Camilo Villegas of Colombia celebrates on the 18th green during the final round after winning the Butterfield Bermuda Championship at Port Royal Golf Course on November 12, 2023 in Southampton, Bermuda. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Camilo Villegas looks skyward after winning the Bermuda Championship at Port Royal Golf Course on November 12.Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesCNN — 

For the briefest of moments, Camilo Villegas simply stood motionless, staring down at the hole and the ball that had just trickled into it. Then, accompanied by the deftest pump of his right fist, he turned his gaze skyward and whispered a message.

“Mia, thanks for inspiring me.”

Nine years and 8,496 holes since his last win on the PGA Tour, Villegas was a champion again, as a two-stroke victory at the Bermuda Championship earlier this month sealed a long-awaited return to the winner’s circle.

The Colombian’s storied road back to the summit has much in common with countless players before him – injury, loss of form and a fight to cling onto his Tour status – but Villegas has also endured unimaginable personal tragedy.

On July 26, 2020, Villegas and wife Maria’s 22-month-old daughter Mia died following a four-month battle with tumors on the brain and spine.

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“She was a very little kid, full of energy, and everything seemed to be going in the perfect direction,” Villegas told CNN Sport’s Patrick Snell.

“But trust me, life goes in circles and it takes sharp bends – things change.”

Rainbow

In the weeks that followed, players, caddies and staff ventured out to tournaments sporting rainbow ribbons on their caps and shirts – a nod to Mia’s love of rainbows. Many would continue to wear the decoration for the duration of the season.

Villegas had been considering quitting the sport before the loss of Mia. Having gone almost two years without a competitive appearance following a grueling right shoulder injury in 2018, the then four-time PGA Tour winner nicknamed “Spider-Man” for his unorthodox method of reading putts was contemplating hanging up his suit.

Yet, less than one month later at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship in Ohio, the World No. 1,015 was back in action – and even made the cut.

“I’m telling you – 80% of the guys that play on the PGA Tour at some point have said, ‘I’m done with this and I’m going to quit,’” said Villegas.

“That’s normal, you’re going to go through ups and downs … but when it comes to the Mia situation, it wasn’t because of that [that] I ever thought about quitting the game.

“It actually kept the engine going, kept that motivation going to continue to grind.”

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - AUGUST 02:  Phil Mickelson of the United States plays a shot on the first hole during the final round of the World Golf Championship-FedEx St Jude Invitational at TPC Southwind on August 02, 2020 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Phil Mickelson plays the 2020 World Golf Championship-FedEx St Jude Invitational with a rainbow ribbon on his cap.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It was a fitting tournament for Villegas to make his return at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship. Mia had been treated at Miami’s Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, named after legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus and his wife Barbara following a $60 million pledge from their Children’s Health Care Foundation.

Meanwhile, Villegas and Maria were driving charity efforts of their own, with the couple’s foundation remodeled as Mia’s Miracles. A rainbow crowning its logo, the foundation provides support to US and Colombian families navigating similar medical crises with young children.

The foundation raised more than $750,000 in 2022, according to its website.

“It opened our hearts,” Villegas reflected, “to help others, to bring smiles to those in need, even after losing our little one.

“We were very fortunate to approach the experience the way we did; with support, with a great health insurance … and that’s not the case for most, so we wanted to give back.

“It’s turned around a tragedy into something that can inspire others.”

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 23: Assistant Captain Camilo Villegas of the International Team, Adam Scott of Australia and Maria Ochoa Mora, wife of Villegas, ride in a golf cart during Friday four-ball matches on day two of the 2022 Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow Country Club on September 23, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Maria and Camilo Villegas at the 2022 Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow Country Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.Rob Carr/Getty Images

Front row seat

Slowly, but surely, momentum began to change for Villegas, “a little snowball” gathering speed and size.

Mia’s Miracles was flourishing under Maria’s presidency, Villegas was back competing at PGA Tour events and then, in December 2021, the greatest boost yet. Their son Mateo was born at 7:56 a.m – a remarkable moment of synchronicity given Mia had been born at 7:56 p.m.

Yet heading into the 2023 season, Villegas remained hovering outside the world’s top 600. Changes ensued – a new instructor, a new mental coach, “drastic” swing changes – and things finally clicked into gear in an unforgettable November.

After finishing tied-runner up at the World Wide Technology Championship – his first PGA Tour top-10 finish in over two years – Villegas touched down in Bermuda the following week and lit up the Port Royal course.

His 24-under overall finish saw him triumph by two shots ahead of Sweden’s Alex Noren to clinch $1.17 million in prize money, his 2024 PGA Tour card and a place at The Masters for the first time since 2015.

CASARES, SPAIN - OCTOBER 30:  Camilo Villegas of Colombia lines up a putt on the 18th green during Day Two of the Group Stage of the Volvo World Match Play Championship at Finca Cortesin on October 30, 2009 in Casares, Spain.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Villegas – seen here in 2009 – coined the “Spider-Man” moniker early in his career due to his unusual style of reading greens.Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Villegas’ trophy lift revealed the words tattooed on each wrist: ‘positive energy’ and ‘attitude.’ It is those two traits – and Mia – to which he attributes his success.

“She is in a better place, trust me,” Villegas said.

“I wish she was here, but the fact that she’s not, we’ve accepted that. She got a front row seat to send me energy and watch what happened in the last couple of weeks.

“I know there’s a lot of people that have bumps and I want them to approach them with a good energy, a good attitude, to accept what’s happening and to turn it around – not to look back and regret what’s happened, but to look forward and see how they can change it, how they can make a terrible experience into something good because life keeps going no matter what.”

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Villegas reflects on emotional Bermuda Championship victory

04:33 – Source: CNN

Sweetening the triumph was the fact that Villegas sunk more birdies than any other player, securing him a $50,000 charity donation from sponsor RSM Classic as part of their https://gayunggoyang.com/ “RSM Birdies for Love” campaign, run during seven PGA Tour events in the fall period.

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No surprises as to which foundation Villegas directed the donation towards.

“Mia is here with us all the time and that will be the case forever,” Villegas said.

“We’ve got a little angel up there looking at us and there’s a big connection. We’ll keep going, we’ll keep grinding, we’ll keep giving it our best, and Mia will be watching.”

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