Golfer Willie Wood among top SAS Championship contenders

calexander@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2012 

— Willie Wood is the smallest player on the Champions Tour and arguably its biggest story this year.

In August, Wood qualified for a tournament on Monday and won it on Sunday, becoming the 12th player in tour history to pull that off. Hardly satisfied with his victory in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open, Wood won the Hawaii Championship a month later.

At 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds, Wood can be hard to spot on a crowded practice range. From a distance, he also looks like one of the golfers at Apex High.

But the former Oklahoma State star, who said his PGA Tour career was "very mediocre," could be among the contenders this week in the SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club.

"His first win might be one of the most popular wins I’ve ever known of," Bob Tway, a former PGA Championship winner and one of Wood’s OSU teammates, said Wednesday. "He just kept practicing and working at it, and obviously he’s doing something really good right now."

Most who follow golf know of Wood’s story. He lost his wife, Holly, to bone cancer in 1989. Two other marriages ended in divorce. He did win the 1996 Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic – his only PGA Tour victory – but went 16 years and more than 300 tournaments trying to win again.

"I had some bad breaks with my personal life that affected me," Wood said. "I don’t want to use that as an excuse but it did have an effect on the way I could concentrate. I thought I was mentally tough enough to handle both, but I guess I wasn’t."

After falling off the PGA Tour, he played on the Web.com Tour. He was waiting to turn 50 in October 2010, waiting to try and join his peers on the Champions Tour.

"When you’re in your late 40s and not real healthy, it’s hard to compete against guys who are 20 years younger than you," Wood said. "But I had a couple of operations in my 40s actually geared to turning 50 and playing this tour and it worked out OK.

"I love playing golf. It’s what I’ve always done. And it paid off. I’ve had spurts of good play here and there but this summer I really started putting it together."

At the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, N.Y., Wood advanced through the Monday qualifying tournament. In the final round, he rolled in a 35-footer birdie putt on the 18th hole, then edged Michael Allen on the first hole of a playoff.

Just like that he was a winner again, with a payoff of $270,000. The text messages, voice messages and phone calls from friends almost were overwhelming.

"Qualifiers are not a fun way to go," he said. "I knew if I finished in the top 10 I’d get to advance to the next (event) and I was hoping to continue that way. Darn if I didn’t win."

And then won again. After contending the next week in the Boeing Classic, finishing third, he captured the Hawaii Championship when Bill Glasson couldn’t hold on to a lead down the stretch at Kapolei Golf Course.

While Wood birdied the last two holes for a 66, Glasson bogeyed the 18th to lose by a shot.

"I know how Bill feels," Wood said after the round. "We all go through that."

Wood, who turned 52 on Monday, knows about hard times. Now, as Tway said, he’s smiling a lot more.

"I think the great thing about Willie is he really has a passion for the game of golf," Tway said. "You couldn’t continue to play poorly and keep fighting if you don’t really care about the game. So it’s always great to see someone who has that kind of passion be able to persevere and do well. Plus, he’s just a great guy."

Noting Wood’s junior career, former Oklahoma State golf coach Mike Holder once said, "He was Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods." That’s a stretch, but Wood did win the 1977 U.S. Junior Amateur and was the 1978 AJGA player of the year before becoming a two-time All-America on a talent-heavy OSU team.

Wood, who has almost $855,000 in winnings this year, said a successful Champions Tour run would be a nice book-end to his golf career.

"I feel like I won the lottery," he said, smiling.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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