President Chavez Changes Tune after Vegas's Victory

Despite previous threats to seize the few remaining golf courses in his country and convert them into housing for the poor, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is now cheering the sport after compatriot Jhonattan Vegas won the Bob Hope Classic.

"A young Venezuelan won a golf tournament in the U.S., we congratulate him," Chavez said Tuesday on state television. "I'm not an enemy of golf. I'm not an enemy of any sport. I've simply criticized that a group of rich people in Caracas have a bunch of golf courses next to slums falling off of hills."

Vegas, who learned to play golf on a nine-hole course in a Venezuelan oil camp in Maturin, hitting rocks with a broomstick, is a rising star in the U.S. after becoming the first Venezuelan to win on the PGA Tour. The 26-year-old also became the first rookie to win the Bob Hope Classic in La Quinta, Calif., when on Sunday he bested fellow rookie Gary Woodland on the second hole of sudden-death.

The victory was worth $900,000, a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and an invitation to the 2011 Masters in April. Afterward, Vegas said he hoped his success would help change the perception of the sport in his country.

"He beat all of the gringos," Chavez said during his speech. "Let's go, buddy." The president added that in the coming days he plans to call Vegas to congratulate him.

In 2006, Chavez, a leftist who rules Venezuela with an iron fist, threatened to expropriate Caracas Country Club to build 50,000 homes before backing off the idea due to heavy criticism.

But heavy rains in December that killed more than 30 people and left 130,000 people displaced renewed Chavez's efforts turn golf courses into low-income housing.

On Tuesday Chavez was singing a different tune. "Let's play golf here," he said today during a speech at a nationalized parcel taken from Irish cardboard maker Smurfit Kappa Group PLC.

"I'm only against these people in the heart of Caracas with 100 hectares of land; you don't see that in any other part of the world. The courses are supposed to be outside the cities.

"What I've done is criticize that there are some rich guys in Caracas who have . . . golf courses and next to them the 'ranchos' are falling down," he said, referring to the simple brick, hillside homes destroyed in the recent landslides.

Chavez noted that Vegas lives and plays in the United States, saying he represents Venezuela nevertheless "wherever he lives."

"We're going to practice golf here, too," he added.