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Villegas: On-course for Colombia

Christina Macfarlane for CNN
  • Camilo Villegas' has had a consistent season following the tragic murder of his Uncle
  • The 'Villegas effect' has taken golf to a new level in Colombia
  • An increasing number of Colombian amateurs look to the States for training in college

London, England (CNN) -- Camilo Villegas was at the top of his game this time last year, after becoming the first Colombian golfer to win a PGA Tour event with his BMW Championship victory in September 2008.

His good form continued by claiming the Tour Championship title followed by a second-place finish in the Fed Ex Cup rankings before his luck away from the fairway took a turn for the worse.

Just as the 27-year-old was taking his place among the elite of the game, he was rocked by the news that his uncle and godfather, Ernesto Villegas, had been killed in a violent shooting.

The shop-owner, from Chinchin, Colombia, was shot in the heart by thieves during an attempted robbery of his business -- a loss of life that added to Colombia's murder-rate statistics that are the highest in the world.

For Villegas -- who hails from the city of Medellin, a town dubbed "machine-gun city" due to the prevalence of violent crime -- the event was a sharp reminder of the troubles of his homeland and the journey he has made.

After a 30th-place finish in the Race to Dubai at the weekend, Villegas's dreams of putting last year's trauma behind him by inspiring Colombia's next generation of golfers, remained strong.

"It's nice to see all the kids and people getting more interested in the game, and wanting to play the game, so I will just try to keep up my good play and hopefully they'll continue to get more interested," Villegas told CNN.

In Colombia, golf is considered a sport only for the elite. There are barriers here and it's the rich people who play
--Tony Ciabattoni

"We have got some great players from Colombia but obviously golf is very small. There's a small group of guys that can really play and it's only a matter of time before we're going to see another Colombian on the PGA Tour," he added.

Back home, the 'Villegas effect' has taken Colombian golf to a new level. For a country where golf is readily available to the elite but virtually unobtainable for the poor, Camilo Villegas is inspiring all classes of non-golfers to pick up a club.

One man battling to bring pay-and-play courses to Colombia is Tony Ciabattoni.

After running golf events for 20 years from his home is Pittsburgh, Ciabattoni decided to relocate with his family to Colombia to set up the "A Game For All" project to address the desperate need for public courses.

Ciabattoni says the demand is evident: "We get whole families coming to play here and an enormous number of local kids...In Colombia, golf is considered a sport only for the elite. There are barriers here and it's the rich people who play."

Ciabattoni says he draws strength from golfing hero Villegas: "Like Camilo, who has broken the door down and shown you can play against the odds - I'm just gonna keep working as hard as I can to keep this going"

Honorary President of the Colombian Golf Federation, Manuel De La Rosa says that Villegas' success has had a significant effect on the growth of golf in recent years:

"Camilo has always made an impact. He's taken golf to the media and is often involved in exhibitions and training programs to encourage young children to take up the game."

Given the recent inclusion of golf in the 2016 Olympics, the game is poised to expand in this developing country. But with 52 private and only two public golf courses in existence, the 'Villegas effect' has a little way to go yet.