JACKSON, Miss. – Camilo Villegas remembers being a hot mess at the beginning. He cried for three days when he learned that his only child, a not-even-two-year-old daughter, Mia, had cancerous tumors on her brain and spine. It was a Sunday in February when Villegas and wife Maria Ochoa waited for the results of the initial tests.
Typically, they didn’t do such scans on Sundays at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, but when Barbara Nicklaus calls on your behalf, schedules change.
Villegas’ world was flipped upside down the week of the Honda Classic. He remembers that Mia cried more than normal, but he and his wife assumed she was simply teething and took her to the pediatrician. Only a parent can really tell when something isn’t right with their child and Villegas, 38, sensed something was off when they walked into a gym.
“She was always a little monkey around the gym, and I noticed she wasn’t being the little monkey that she always was,” he said in June. “I don’t know why, I just kind of got a bad feeling.”
So, he and Maria slept at the hospital the night before the scan. Hours of waiting felt like days. It reminded him of visiting St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. He made it a habit of going to see the kids there every year during the PGA Tour’s annual stop.
“I remember walking in the lobby and seeing all the parents there. That to me was the really hard part,” he said. “All of a sudden I was one of those parents at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.”
When a knock on the door broke the silence, Villegas was greeted by an army of faces and he instantly knew the verdict was grim.
“You don’t need 10 doctors to tell you the good news,” he said.
So, he cried. Fresh tears.
For three days.
“Every time I looked at my little one I couldn’t hold it in,” he said. “My wife was so strong. She didn’t want us to communicate any negative energy. I really struggled. Most people would’ve thought that the end was the hardest part, but I truly believe that she’s in a beautiful place.”
Turning tragedy into ‘Miracles’
Mia died on Sunday, July 26, after multiple rounds of chemotherapy. She was 22 months old and two hours. On the previous Tuesday, the latest scan determined that the chemo wasn’t working and the tumors that littered her body were growing.
“That’s when it turned from our miracle to Mia’s miracle,” Villegas said. “I knew what was going to happen. Knowing she was going to be in a better place gave me peace. That Sunday was somewhat peaceful, to be honest.”
How does one move on after losing a child, especially at such a young age? How does one get out of bed in the morning let alone make four birdies in a row and shoot a 66 as he did at the Sanderson Farms Championship on Sunday?
“Life is good,” Villegas said. “I think a lot of people if they hear me say that will be like, ‘What the heck is he saying,’ but it is.”
It’s become a sportswriting cliché to say that returning to the playing field after experiencing any hardship in life for an athlete is a welcome diversion, but Villegas believes his training as a professional golfer has served him well.
“We kind of learn how to do it with what we do for a living, to forget the bogeys and the failure. You can’t live in the past. I’ve managed to find a way to bring that a little bit to our family situation,” he said. “It’s not forget. Let’s be very clear. You don’t forget your child. It’s accept. Once you’re able to accept the past, it changes the whole perception.”
And then Villegas says something that may explain his ability to compartmentalize a tragedy that would leave many of us paralyzed in a state of grief.
“I never asked, ‘Why me?’ I think that has helped a lot,” Villegas said. “We always focused on, ‘What for?’ We’re slowly finding out that answer.”
Building the foundation
Like so many pro athletes, Villegas created his own charitable foundation, but by his own admission, he wasn’t very active. The Camilo Villegas Foundation supported various charitable initiatives. It has been renamed Mia’s Miracles, and with a renewed purpose: to celebrate Mia’s life and help other families undergoing the same experiences with childhood cancer.
“Mia’s miracle was to be here for a short time, send a message, and help others and that’s where the foundation comes along,” said Villegas, noting that his wife is spearheading the effort beginning with a series of community beach walks.
“It’s not forget. Let’s be very clear. You don’t forget your child. It’s accept.”
On the golf course, Villegas is trying to mount a comeback after missing nearly two years with a shoulder injury. The four-time PGA Tour winner once reached as high as No. 7 in the world, but he began the year ranked No. 2074. He played six times on the Korn Ferry Tour this season and in his second start back on the PGA Tour via a medical extension, he finished T-22 at the Sanderson Farms Championship, his first made cut since the 2018 Honda Classic. Even his injury is looked at in a different light after losing Mia.
“If my shoulder would’ve been good, I would have spent half as much time with my daughter because I would’ve been off playing golf,” Villegas said. “I can care less about not playing golf for that year and a half. I was there for her.”
Support for Villegas has come from various circles. His brother, Manny, a touring pro and caddie for Luke Donald, has been there in his time of need, and began caddying for him since the Korn Ferry Challenge in June. Villegas says he has felt the outpouring of affection from his fans and fellow pros. He didn’t want to get into specifics because he didn’t want to leave anybody out, but noted that in the aftermath of his announcement of Mia’s diagnosis at the Korn Ferry Challenge in June his phone blew up with text, voicemails and social media posts.
“Even though I knew there was a lot of love I couldn’t look at it anymore,” he said.
Maria joined her husband at the Safeway Open in Napa, California.
Villegas called it “part of the process.”
“Every week I come out here, there’s four more guys that I haven’t seen,” Villegas said. “We forget COVID for a moment. They’ll say, ‘Come here, I’ve got to give you a hug.’ ”
Between him and his brother, they’ve found something in his swing and his shoulder has healed to the point where he can begin training properly and he’s gaining speed in his swing to compete against the young pups. However, there’s no timeline for mending a broken heart.
“The hardest thing for me is when I scroll through my pictures. We live in a digital age. I’ve got 4-5 months of images that bring out the love, but they bring out the tears too,” he said. “My wife scrolls through them all the time. Looks at pictures and little videos. I struggle with it to be honest. That’s the toughest.”
‘That’s the family, man.’
Mia is never far from his mind. Symbolic of his love are the two bracelets he’s wearing on his left wrist. The first one is from a children’s hospital in Colombia. Villegas competed in the Korn Ferry Tour’s Country Club de Bogota Championship in February and a good friend of his took him to the hospital to see kids being treated with heart problems.
At the end of the tour, he purchased a red bracelet of thread. The other one his wife made for him, just as she did for several nurses at Nicklaus Children’s hospital during Mia’s treatment. Black and white beads with the letters C-M-M-P – standing for Camilo, Maria, Mia and their dog, Pixie – are separated by hearts.
“That’s the family, man,” he said.
Someday, Villegas still holds out hope that the family will grow. He said they already have begun trying to have another child.
“My wife was nervous at the beginning. We talked to the doctors and they said it was just a bad lottery ticket. There’s nothing that suggests this would happen again,” he said. “We’re looking forward. It took us a while to get pregnant. In the meantime, we’re going to help others, remember the good, and focus on what’s coming.”