- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

Along came a spider. Charismatic Colombian Camilo Villegas, known as Spider-Man, scuttled past nearly half the field at the 137th British Open on Friday, posting a tournament-best 65 at previously impregnable Birkdale to surge into sole possession of third place just two strokes behind 36-hole leader K.J. Choi.

“I obviously played unbelievable,” said the 26-year-old Villegas, who earned the nickname with his unique, sprawling green-reading routine. “I started bogey-bogey, and at that point I was wondering if I was even going to be around for the weekend. … But I kept my composure, and the back nine was very special finishing with five birdies in a row.”

Wearing a blue argyle sweater and a black version of his signature painter’s cap, Villegas jumped 71 players by notching birdies on each of the last five holes on the 7,173-yard, par-70 links. And unlike most of his compatriots, the bulk of whom staggered off the course cold, soggy, wind-swept and swearing, Villegas emerged with eight birdies, trumpeting the merits of links golf.

“I love it here,” Villegas said. “I love the different conditions. I love the different shots. I love that you have to use your imagination.

“It’s so different than what we’re used to in the States. I mean, downwind you can hit a driver that goes 370 yards, and then you get into the wind and you’re hitting a driver 230. That’s fun.”

Villegas, with his youth, exuberance and inexperience, provides a perfect contrast to the similarly surprising challenge of aging master Greg Norman, the two-time Open champion (1986, 1993) who carded another steady 70 on Friday to dominate story lines just a swing behind Choi.

But the Shark and Spider-Man share more than just fauna-driven nicknames and dizzying leader board perches. Making his first British Open start, Villegas sought out Norman on the driving range early Tuesday morning, humbly requesting the privilege of accompanying the Australian legend during one of his practice rounds. Among the men assembled at Birkdale, only five-time champion Tom Watson has a more impressive professorial resume. But given Villegas’ similarly flamboyant style, perhaps no veteran was a more apt teacher than the swashbuckling Aussie.

Flattered by the genuflection of a rising star less than half his age, the 53-year-old Norman gladly consented.

“He’s a great guy, a guy who has played many Opens and is a very experienced individual,” Villegas said. “We talked about many things, obviously links golf and playing these types of golf courses among them. He had some good advice. And when somebody like that tells you something, you’d better listen.”

A two-time academic All-American at Florida, Villegas always has been an attentive pupil. And his raw talent has never been in dispute. Though Villegas is still awaiting his breakthrough victory on the PGA Tour, he already has collected 14 top-10s in his three seasons on the tour.

Only five players since World War II have collected the claret jug in their British Open debuts, most recently Ben Curtis in 2003 at Royal St. George’s.

But Birkdale’s leader board is loaded with long shots. How else can you define a 36-hole pack of front-runners filled by a Korean (no Asian-born player has ever won a major), two seeming has-beens (Norman and David Duval) and a first-timer? Given such a motley mix at the top, a Grand Slam leap from Spider-Man hardly requires a cartoonish suspension of disbelief.

“I’ll keep doing exactly what I’m doing and just have fun with it,” Villegas said. “Yes, it’s my first Open. Yes, it’s only my third year on tour. But I feel pretty good about myself and my game.”

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