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

Tue Jan 25, 2011 3:38pm EST
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By Andrew Cawthorne

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.

"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.   Continued...

<p>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</p>