RALEIGH — In 2005, Jason Dufner came to the Rex Hospital Open, shot 81 in the opening round and promptly missed the cut in the Nationwide Tour event at TPC Wakefield Plantation.
A year later, Dufner was back. He opened with a 68, had a solid tournament, then won the LaSalle Bank Open the next week on the tour.
Dufner was on his way to a big year – and as it turned out, on his way to the PGA Tour. On Sunday, he became a winner for the first time, besting Ernie Els in a playoff at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
There are many seeking to follow Dufner’s path. And not just Dufner, but the host of other Nationwide alums who spent time on the tour honing their games and preparing for the rigors of life and competition on the PGA Tour.
Players such as Will Wilcox.
Wilcox was at TPC Wakefield on Tuesday to help promote the 2012 Rex Hospital Open, set for May 31-June 3. And while his name might not be known to many, even among golf aficionados, Wilcox has an interesting story to tell.
Wilcox, 25, said he falls into the crowd of players on the Nationwide Tour who are “young, hungry and can bomb the ball.” Like many, he said, he’s in his 20s and “ooking forward to the future and really excited about trying to get to the PGA Tour.”
The son of the women’s golf coach at Alabama-Birmingham, Wilcox obviously had advantages in the sport. He also managed to squander them for a while.
A reckless lifestyle early in his college days at UAB, when he said he made “stupid decisions,” nearly led him to give up golf. According to The Birmingham News, he was charged with a DUI in 2005, and Wilcox said he was an outcast from most of his family.
Wilcox said he was “downer than down” and almost sold his clubs. Then came something of an awakening, and a pizza place in Auburn, Ala.
“I was working in the kitchen, making pasta and salads, making $5.55 an hour,” he said. “I was living with my sister, on a cot in her workout room. She was a waitress at the restaurant. That’s the only reason I got the job.”
But Wilcox got a call from Barry Harwell, then the golf coach at Clayton State, an NCAA Division II school south of Atlanta. Harwell offered Wilcox a chance to return to college and play again, and Wilcox accepted, turning in his apron.
Wilcox was a Division II All-America in 2008 and 2009. Turning pro, he played on the Hooters Tour, winning twice, then went to the Canadian Tour.
A year ago, Wilcox tried playing the Nationwide Tour, and did it the hard way. He joined the flock of golfers in Monday morning qualifiers, scrambling to secure spots in tournament fields.
“You have to do something really good at the right time to get out here,” he said.
Wilcox twice finished third in tournaments, closed 36th on the tour money list with more than $149,000 and also qualified for the U.S. Open, his first major championship. He tied for 11th in the 2011 Rex Hospital Open with a final-round 65 that was the low score of the day.
“I love this golf course. It’s a shot-maker’s course,” Wilcox said of TPC Wakefield.
Wilcox is 32nd in Nationwide money this year. He could be one of the favorites when the tour rolls into Wakefield in a few weeks, and in a Rex field that tournament organizers say could include John Daly.
Wilcox has grown up, personally. He’s growing into a good professional golfer.
“It’s been a crazy road since I graduated from high school,” he said, smiling. “Now, it’s nothing but good stuff.”