You Da Man!

Not a great player in college, Dean Wilson became a PGA Tour champ by working hard and never giving up

Steve Murray
Friday - September 08, 2006
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Wilson’s trophy for winning The International also came with a check for $990,000
Wilson’s trophy for winning The International also came with
a check for $990,000

The life of a professional golfer sure looks glamorous: huge paydays while spending time at some of the world’s most exotic locales and holing up in ancient inns and five-star resorts that most vacationers can only get close to by turning on the Travel Channel; stops in Spain, Thailand, Barbados, Italy, Ireland, South Africa, Paris; worldwide fame; being part of one of the world’s oldest sports. Sounds pretty nice. And no doubt it is, for the fortunate few. But for the masses, it’s a long, hard grind.

Hours in the gym, thousands of dollars spent on coaches, isolation from family and friends, practice from dawn to dusk, barely keeping your head above water while living out of a suitcase, not sure when your next paycheck will arrive or if you’ll have to give it all up just to eat.

That’s the real story behind professional golf. Make $990,000 for a weekend of work? Think again.

Dean Wilson’s first big payday took only four days and two playoff holes. That is 23 years, four days and a two playoff holes - the usual overnight success story. It began at the age of 13 with repeated trips to Pali Golf Course. It was learn as you go. No extra money for big-name teachers - Mom and Dad filling that role and many more.

Wilson wasn’t exactly a natural talent. He wasn’t a high school standout at Castle, but he did manage a scholarship to BYU-Hawaii, far from the NCAA Division 1 experience he was looking for. After two years he walked on at BYU-Provo, hoping for a scholarship. None came, although he did make the team. He just wasn’t that good.

He wasn’t even that good by the time he graduated with a degree in secondary education - his backup plan, just in case. So he took a job at Riverside Country Club, BYU’s home course, and worked for his old coach, washing carts and doing whatever, making a few dollars while working on his game. Eventually it was to test himself - not on the PGA, but the Australian Tour. After a few years it was on to Canada, then to the Asian tour for four years and then to Japan where he won six times and finally started seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

“It definitely helped,” says Wilson of the sudden financial freedom winning in Japan provided. “I was in the battle a lot, and also over there I was winning. That was one of the major tours, so I was making money and staying afloat. I was actually able to put some away and start getting comfortable, and that’s a huge thing, being able to play and support yourself.”

Not everyone arrives from college with a $10 million endorsement deal. For the great majority, expenses come out of their own pocket. It’s a funny thing in life. The more you have the more people are willing to give you things.

“It’s expensive to go out there and to play, but that’s part of the battle. I was always able to figure out how to play well, to make a check and keep it going, so I was able to play or come home and work a little bit in a pro shop, or play smaller tournaments here or there, and make a check to earn enough money to keep playing. So all of it was a learning process.”

Another lesson to be learned on tour, and one that is rarely talked about, is the isolation. Even though golf is a solo game, being on the PGA tours is like being a member of one of the world’s most exclusive fraternities. Maybe we have Hollywood to thank for that. Tin Cup and Happy Gilmore were never without company. A babe on one arm, a buddy on the other. But the truth is that the road can be a very lonely place. Or at least it would be if so much time weren’t spent trying to stay employed. Private jets and crafted schedules help out a lot, if you can afford them. But that’s for the Tigers, Phils and Vijays. Not the Deans.

“It could be (lonely), but it seems that my days are so busy when I’m on the road and working on my golf game that by evening I’m so tired I just want to grab a bite to eat and go to bed. So I don’t have a lot of time to do a lot of socializing, because I’m either getting done with the day or getting ready for the next day. It’s quite busy, and I think everybody is like that.”

Even catching up with old friends can be difficult.

“Mike Wier (the former Masters champ) and I were college roommates and we’re as good of friends as any two guys can be, but he has time constraints. He has family out there so we don’t have a lot of dinners together. It’s tough. Everybody is out there working, and you spend a little bit of time with them hanging out in the locker room or playing practice rounds. But out there it’s business. Everybody has their own agenda and is working hard to get better.”

And that’s what it comes down to: hard work. Not making small rocks out of big ones, but time-consuming and tiring all the same. And while Vijay Singh is lauded for his incredible work ethic, for Wilson hitting 1,000 balls a day isn’t impressive. It’s necessary.

“Among my peers no one worked harder,” he says. “Whether it was in high school or college or as I started playing tours, it seems like I would outlast more guys than they would outlast me. I think that’s why I’ve continued to get a little better and have some success, and maybe some of those guys from college stopped playing, are doing something else or played the mini tours and didn’t have success and stopped. There is a lot of hard work, a lot of time put in, a lot of perseverance. You just keep on going.”

Finally it paid off. After all the hours on the range, after playing in places you’d need an atlas to find, all the years of hard work eventually culminated in his first PGA career victory at The International at Castle Pines Golf Club in Castle Rock, Colorado - a 7,594-yard test that combines the need for accuracy and reachable par 5s to make it one of the season’s most entertaining events. Much of that is because of the tournament’s use of a Modified Stableford Scoring system that awards points - positive or negative depending on how good or bad you play each hole. An eagle will get you five points and a birdie two. A par is worth nothing, but there is a minus-one point penalty for a bogey and minus-three for a double bogey or worse. The International is the only stop on tour that uses this type of play. Positions change quickly. It’s unique and needless to say, Wilson is fan.

“I liked it, obviously,” he says. “It’s a little different. You need to be more aggressive. Starting the tournament you know that making birdies is what you need to do. It puts a different mindset into the players.”

Being mentally strong was important. Wilson did not begin his march to the championship by bursting out of the gates. He started off with four birdies, but closed with three bogies and one double for two points on the day, which put him closer to missing the cut than to victory. On day two he made his move, scoring nine points on six birdies and one eagle, tying him for sixth place with Davis Love III and the man who would take him to a playoff, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman.

The hard work was paying off. It need-

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