One-time prodigy Willie Wood keeps plugging away on Champions Tour

PGA Champions Tour golfer Willie Wood on the 18th green during the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic Presented by C Spire PGA Champions tournament Nicholas Air Pro Am at Fallen Oak Golf Club in Saucier, Mississippi, on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. Photo by James Edward Bates for C Spire.
Willie Wood (foreground) keeps plugging away on the PGA Champions Tour. (Photo by James Edward Bates for C Spire.)
Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland

BILOXI — Willie Wood, a graying 55 years old now, was a golf prodigy as early as four decades ago. Indeed, few would have been shocked had he become a world champion.

A Texan by birth and a Louisianan growing up, Wood was a national junior champion as a teen and the world’s No. 1 ranked junior player. As a college player at Oklahoma State, he was a two-time All-American and national player of the year. When he turned pro, he won the PGA qualifying school. Willie Wood had the “it” factor. He was a winner.

Life was good. He met and married the lovely woman who became Holly Wood. They had two sons. Woods hadn’t won yet on tour, but he was close. He was playing well. And then — and then this is going to make a long story of suffering short: Holly developed bone cancer, fought it unsuccessfully and died in July, 1986.

Says Willie’s good friend Madison golf pro Randy Watkins, “Saddest thing I ever saw. Willie was devastated. Everybody who knew them was devastated.”

And so was Willie Wood’s golf game. Woods remembered all that during a break from practicing for the Gulf Resorts Resorts Classic Presented by C Spire.

“I was just going through motions,” Wood said, staring down the practice range. “I mean, I played. I practiced. But in golf, you have to really be focused on the game. I lost my focus.”

In many ways, he lost his game. He eventually lost his PGA Tour playing privileges.

He never lost his friends, including Watkins who he had become friends with when they were junior prodigies. Watkins won the PGA Junior National one year. Woods won it the next. They were going to go to college together, actually visited the University of Texas together. But Watkins eventually opted for Ole Miss and Woods for Oklahoma State. They remained close friends when Watkins played the tour.

“This is what I will tell you about Willie Wood,” Watkins says. “I know a lot of people, but I don’t know anyone who would have one bad word to say about Willie Wood.

“Willie’s story tell you just how much of golf is psychological,” Watkins said. “You can’t play this sport if you aren’t totally committed to it. You have to be all in.”

Naturally, Watkins has followed Wood career closely. Wood was staying at Watkins’ house in Madison when he broke through and won his first and only PGA Tour title, the 1996 Deposit Guaranty Classic at Annandale.

There’s a story there, too. Wood’s dad had been a golf pro and a friend of Canton golf legend, the late Robbie Webb. Watkins and Wood went to Canton the week of the Deposit Guaranty Classic to visit the man they called Mr. Webb and played a practice round there. Watkins and Webb gave Woods a pre-round lesson. Wood responded by shooting 61 and fleecing Watkins.

“Took every penny I had,” Watkins said, laughing.

And then Wood went out and won the tournament, defeating Kirk Triplett by a shot. Watkins ran out onto the 18th green with an uncorked bottle of champagne. Ben Nelson, then a PGA Tour official, had to stop him. “No, Randy, not yet,” Nelson said. “He’s got to sign his scorecard and make it official.”

Wood did. And they partied at Watkins’ house that night. Wood eventually won more than $2 million on the tour. He is in his fifth year on the Champions Tour, having won two tournaments in 2012.

Since then, he has battled shoulder injuries, but says he feels more fit presently than he has since the two victories in 2012.

Can he win again?

“I think I can,” Woods says. “But I won’t lie. I don;’t know how long the window is. I’m 55. The older you get, the harder it is. You just keep plugging away.”

Nobody knows that better than Willie Wood. And so he does. Keep plugging away.

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