January 25, 2011 / 8:25 PM / in 8 years

I'm no enemy of golf, says Venezuela's Chavez

CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez put aside his mockery of golf as a “bourgeois” sport on Tuesday to congratulate Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas for winning a first PGA title at the Bob Hope Classic.

Venezuelan golfer Jhonattan Vegas hits off the second tee during an early morning practice round on the south course at Torrey Pines in San Diego, California January 25, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Blake

“I’m not an enemy of golf. I’m not an enemy of any sport,” Chavez said, cheering and clapping as he used a TV address to show footage of Vegas’s weekend playoff victory.

The baseball-loving socialist leader has frequently disparaged golf as an elitist sport played on land that would be better used to build houses for the poor. About half a dozen courses, run by the state oil company, have been closed.

So Venezuelans had been wondering how their president would react to the South American nation’s greatest golfing triumph, achieved by a 26-year-old with modest roots who was exposed to the sport by his father’s job as a caddy.

“I am happy. Let’s congratulate Jhonattan Vegas. He beat all the ‘gringos’ (Americans), nice one! ... He is the pride of Venezuela,” said Chavez, who is Washington’s leading critic in Latin America.

“And he’s black, like (U.S. leader Barack) Obama, just a little bit plumper,” added Chavez, who often refers to skin color and racial stereotyping in Venezuela and elsewhere.

The firebrand president said his previous barbs against golf — including mockery of “lazy” players who use carts — had been misinterpreted.

“All I’ve done is criticize the fact that there are some rich guys in Caracas who have a load of golf courses next to neighborhoods that are falling down,” he said.

Chavez, who said he too used to play golf during his childhood in Venezuela’s central plains, added that he was trying to contact Vegas by telephone to congratulate him.

Unlike most of soccer-mad South America, the national sport in Venezuela is baseball, first introduced by U.S. oilmen.

Born in the country’s eastern city of Maturin, Vegas began playing at the age of two before moving to the United States in 2002 and turning professional six years later.

The first and only PGA Tour player from Venezuela, long-hitting Vegas clinched his maiden title on the U.S. circuit on Sunday in a gripping three-way playoff with Americans Gary Woodland and Bill Haas.

He was the first rookie to win the event in 52 years.

Editing by Daniel Wallis and Ed Osmond

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