For the first time since he won the PGA Tour’s Deposit Guaranty Classic in Mississippi 16 years ago, Willie Wood has won another tournament, the Champions Tour’s Dick’s Sporting Goods Open at the En-Joie Golf Club in Endicott, New York. He sunk a 35-foot putt on the 18th hole to get into a playoff with Michael Allen and then made par on the first playoff hole when Allen hit his tee shot into the water hazard.
In all those intervening years, he played in 189 PGA TOUR events, 105 Web.com Tour events and 15 Champions Tour events to get to this day he knew would eventually come. He’s just the 12th Monday qualifier to win in Champions Tour history.
But in all that time he cobbled together a wealth of experience that prepared him for the moment:
Coming over here this morning I was thinking when the last time I was in the last group on Sunday and it had been a while in a PGA TOUR event. I’ve been in some state opens and a couple tournaments in Mexico that I played in, but not on the PGA TOUR and this kind of spotlight, so it was quite exciting. I hung in there and hung in there and things turned out great.
He graduated from the Web.com Tour to the Champions Tour, but he was having to Monday qualify to play:
This is my eighth tournament, I think I was 52nd on the money list coming in. My tournament average was $25,000 a week, which I was happy with, it’s paying the bills, but I wanted more. I love playing with these guys out here because they’re all friends of mine and it’s such a great friendly atmosphere compared to the PGA TOUR.
I played in a TOUR event in July down in Jackson, Mississippi, and it was with kids younger than my sons, and it wasn’t the same [not to mention that he’s just 5′ 7″ and 145 pounds]. I wanted to be here playing in tournaments, on this Tour playing in tournaments. But I did finish 18th in that tournament, by the way.
So I knew I was playing well and working hard, and I just really had a nice round Monday in the qualifier and things fell together. I didn’t play good in the pro-am. I worked on my putting on Thursday and they started going in.
The next tournament is the Boeing Classic out in Seattle and because of the great distance and time required to get there from Endicott, the Monday qualifier was shifted to Tuesday. Nevertheless, this is the lot of the Monday qualifiers:
I’m entered into the qualifier in Seattle for Tuesday. I have a flight out at 5:40 in the morning because I needed to get there. I didn’t know if I was going to finish top 10 or what [which would make him exempt into the field], to see the golf course to prepare for the qualifier Tuesday.
This win is a huge relief. Now I can go to tournaments on Tuesday and not have to — and play my practice rounds either that day, the pro-am day, see the golf course, so it’s really, really big. We have a tournament in Hawaii coming up that I knew I was going to be close to getting into. Now I can make a plane reservation, now I can make a hotel reservation. It’s a big relief, it really is.
But not only that, his win makes him exempt next year too and he now has the luxury of playing when and where he wants to:
There’s quite a few tournaments that I have been wanting to play in, tried hard to get sponsor exemptions this year and they just didn’t work out, and now I can play in them.
When you are a player on the margin and you find yourself in the heat of a playoff battle for the first time, you tend to think about what you have locked up rather than what might be possible:
My only other playoff on the PGA TOUR was Joey Sindelar in the Hardee’s Classic in about 1990 and I remember going to the tee there and wasn’t ready to play the playoff. I was too excited about I got second place wrapped up. But I was young.
And so when you get in a playoff, the tournament’s not over until playoff’s over. [Today] I kept my composure and kept my focus on trying to put the ball in the fairway and win the playoff and that’s how it worked out.
Periodically the tours reshuffle all of the player priority lists based on their recent play. It’s an effort to ensure that the best players up and down the line are the ones playing each week. It’s an opportunity for players very low on the totem pole to play well, climb the stairway to heaven and be rewarded with more playing opportunities:
A provisional reshuffle was done and I was fourth alternate. But I knew if I passed — I was going to probably pass Jeff Freeman, I might pass Jeff Hart, but Dick Mast is ahead of me, there’s a lot of what-ifs.
So finally I just decided to play golf and stop worrying about that, and if I finish top 10, that would get me in. Sure enough, I won, that got me in.
Former PGA Tour player and Golf Channel commentator, Billy Ray Brown, is a good friend of Wood’s — they go way back as the saying goes. Wood wasn’t the only one who was happy that he won the tournament:
I got a little bit emotional after I made the putt before the playoff. I looked over at Billy Ray and it looked like he may have been crying himself.
You always expect it and think about it, but you don’t know if it’s ever going to happen. I expect to win again, but I don’t know if it’s actually going to happen or not because things have to go your way and you have to get good breaks and guys have to make some bogeys and you have to make some 35-footers.
So it’s really difficult to win against competition like this.
A lot of PGA Tour players, unable to compete on that tour, have used the Web.com Tour as a time machine to the Champions Tour. But just because it’s the minor leagues, it doesn’t mean that trying to get your game sharp there is anything close to easy. Wood truly earned his victory:
So from ’96 on, when I started playing the Web.com Tour, competition on the Web.com Tour is very, very good, a lot of young, hungry kids that can play, and we weren’t playing for that much money.
In the early 2000s when I was making cuts but not making expenses, it was probably the lowest point. When you’re in your late 40s, I’m trying to compete against kids that are really good and half my age. It’s almost like it’s not a fair fight.
When you are deep in the process of trying to get better to play at the highest level, it can be a lonely path. But you keep going because you know what the ultimate prize will be:
Because I was looking forward to this. I knew that when I turned 50, I would have a new challenge ahead of me, a challenge that I may have a chance.
People asked me last year, earlier this year, are you going to go play any Web.com tournaments? Heck, no, I don’t want a piece of those guys. Because the money is okay, but the competition’s great. I like playing the PGA TOUR, but, you know, those guys are really good, but the money’s good. If you make the cut you make a really nice check. In the Web.com Tour, you can finish in the middle of pack and lose money that week. That’s kind of difficult to take.
There’s the joke, what does a cheeseburger and the Web.com Tour have in common? You can feed a family of three with a cheeseburger but you can’t on the Nationwide Tour. I’m really knocking it down. It helped me prepare, though, for the Champions Tour or I would have had nowhere to play.
On a personal note, some years ago, we invited one of my Monday qualifying buddies and his wife, who also lived in Scottsdale, to dinner. They were good friends with Wood, he was their house guest and they asked if they could bring him along. We had a lovely evening together. I’m sure one of the messages blowing up Willie’s cell phone is from my friends.
But since I don’t have his number, I will simply use this medium to say, “Congratulations Willie. You’re living the dream thousands of others tried for too. And as is always true in the fraternity of Monday qualifiers, I know what you went through to get there and I couldn’t be happier for you. Good luck and play well. You earned it.”