It’s Never Too Late: The Short Happy Career of Willie Wood

At long last he putted, and the ball rolled agonizingly slowly across the green, then broke right towards the cup. “Go!” I shouted. “Go!”

THIS IS THE STORY of a professional athlete and one of his more ardent fans. The athlete is former PGA touring pro Willie Wood.   I am the fan. I became aware of Willie back in the mid-1980’s when we lived in the Bay Area because Mrs. R. and I had a good friend, Diana, who was somehow related to him or to his wife Holly — I forget which.   (And yes, his wife’s name really was Holly Wood.)

We never met Willie, but we did meet Holly. Diana introduced us one year at the Crosby Tournament at Pebble Beach in which Willie was playing. I remember her as a friendly, auburn-haired young woman with a smile that would melt all of Alaska.

Willie turned pro after an outstanding amateur career and an even better college career at Oklahoma State. In order to earn playing privileges on the pro tour, he entered the 1983 PGA Qualifying Tournament, aka “Q” school, which consisted of two sectional qualifying tournaments followed by a grueling, six-day, 108-hole competition that most pros describe with terms like “gut wrenching” and “hell week.” Willie not only qualified, he shot the low score of the week. This was a guy headed for stardom, and he did have some notable success during the first few years of his career.

REMEMBER THE EPISODES in the Peanuts comic strip where each fall Lucy would hold the football so Charlie Brown could placekick it? At the last minute she would pull it out of the way, and Charlie would go flying on his derriere. The next September Lucy would promise not to pull it away, but of course she always did.

After a while I felt like Charlie Brown trying kick the football that Lucy would pull away. Just when I thought Willie was going to make a breakthrough, he would disappoint. Some of it was just plain bad luck. In 1990 he tied for first with Joey Sindelar at a tournament known then as the Hardee’s classic. When this happens the players who are tied go into a sudden death playoff. On the first playoff hole, Willie hit a shot to the green that as I recall hit a metal lawn sprinkler head and went flying wildly away from the hole, costing him the playoff.

I remember later in the 90’s he was in contention on Saturday at a tournament in Hartford but played himself out of contention by finishing that day with several disastrous holes.

Willie won just under $2.8 million in prize money from the mid-1980’s to the late 1990’s, which to be honest, isn’t much. Out of that a pro has to pay for hotels, air fare, meals and caddy fees. In 1996 he won his only tournament on the regular tour, the Deposit Guaranty Classic in Madison, Mississippi. But by the late 1990’s WILLIEWOOD2he was off the regular tour and playing in golf’s minor leagues. He said some weeks he would play well enough to win a check, and still not make expenses. Like all pros he did earn some income from sponsors including Titleist Golf.

There was a reason for Willie’s descent. In September of 1988 Holly was diagnosed with bone cancer. At the time the couple had two infant children. Willie spent the off season with her in Houston where she was being treated in a clinic. The treatment was expensive, so in January Willie headed back to the tour to earn some money. When he was out of town, Holly’s parents took care of the kids.

By the following June Willie knew Holly wasn’t going to make it. Chemo had robbed her of her auburn locks; now she wore a white towel around her head. In July she passed away. Golf is a game where you have to concentrate, and after Holly died, Willie just couldn’t do that. For a long while I wondered from time to time whatever happened to Willie.

Then one Sunday late in 2012 I turned on the TV to watch a PGA tournament, the Wyndham Classic, only to find out it had been rained out. Needing a golf fix, any fix, I switched to the the Dick’s Sporting Goods Classic on the Champion’s Tour.   That’s a professional tour for golfers after they turn 50. Since 1980, guys whose PGA Tour days were over have had a place to compete and to earn a living. Lee Trevino once called the Champion’s Tour “golf’s ultimate Mulligan.”* But it’s no place for softies. The longer hitters, like Freddy Couples, can still pound the ball 300 yards or more off the tee.

Surprise, surprise! There in the last group, only one stroke out of the lead was 51-year-old Willie Wood. I was glued to that set. There were only a half-dozen holes left, and as they went by it seemed less and less likely that Willie could make up the difference. Finally he reached the 18th and final hole needing a birdie three (a birdie being one under par on the hole) to tie.

He reached the green in two but had to make a 35-foot putt to tie. The chances of making that were slim and none. I got this sinking feeling that Lucy was going to pull the football away again. At long last he putted, and the ball rolled agonizingly slowly across the green, then broke right towards the cup. “Go!” I shouted. “Go!”

And it went. Willie was tied for the lead, and about to go into a playoff with Michael Allen, a tour veteran who had already won two Champions events that year.

Later on the Golf Channel, Brandel Chamblee, who played with Willie on the regular tour, said, “He is one of the best putters I have ever seen. He’s been making putts like that all his life.”

THE PLAYOFF WAS OVER ALMOST BEFORE IT STARTED. On the first playoff hole, Willie put his drive in the fairway, but Allen hit one of the worst drives of his career. It went sharply left behind a TV tower and into a hazard for a one-stroke penalty. About ten minutes later Willie tapped in a six-inch putt for his first victory in sixteen years and a $270,000 first place check.

It was an emotional win. “I have a lot of people to thank,” he told interviewer David Marr, “but right now I can’t remember who they are.”

Many senior players have full playing privileges. They can enter any tournament they wish. But Willie hadn’t earned that status yet. He either had to get a sponsor’s exemption (i.e., beg his way in) or show up several days before the tournament and play in a qualifying tournament. It’s a gamble because if you don’t qualify you’ve racked up a bunch of expenses but have earned no income.

“This is a life-changing experience for Willie,” said former tour player Curt Byrum who has known Willie for decades. Because in addition to the hefty prize money he was fully exempt on the Champions Tour for the next twelve months.

“No more Monday qualifying,” Willie told David Marr. “Now I have a place to play.”

A few weeks later he won a second tournament, the Pacific Links Hawaii Championship.

Alas there have been no more wins since then. But for one brief period Willie fulfilled the promise many thought he had when he began his career in the 1980’s.

“He’s a good guy, well respected by his peers, who has had tragedy in his life, but who had lots of people rooting for him today,” said Brandel Chamblee. One person said he thought even his play-off opponent, Michael Allen, might have been rooting for him.

* Mulligan: Among golfers who play loose with the rules, a Mulligan is a do-over. Hit a bad shot? Take a Mulligan and hit it again.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.