When Willie Wood returned to his locker at En-Joie Golf Club in Endicott, N.Y., waiting for him were 190 text messages.
“They just kept coming,” said the winner of the Dick's Sporting Goods Open two weeks ago on the Champions Tour. “I was retrieving them and they kept coming.”
After catching a 5:40 a.m. flight to the tour's next stop, 40 more messages greeted Wood when he touched down in Seattle.
Many texts came from longtime friends. Other origins remain unknown because well-wishers forgot to identify themselves. Other congratulations came via email, which Wood tried to answer.
When you haven't won a tournament in 16 years, 29 days and 309 starts on the PGA, Web.com and Champions tours, you find out who your friends are.
Wood always knew where he stood, because these friends never disappeared.
“The response was overwhelming — literally, the true sense of overwhelming,” said the 51-year-old Wood, who resides at Oak Tree National. “When you're 50 years old, chances are you've gone through some bad times in your life. I'm not alone in having struggles, not only in golf but in my personal life, too. I have a lot of friends who have called, and I've called them. When things happen to friends, you call them. You try to help them, even if it's just listening to them. I've had a lot of nice, close friends do that for me.”
Wood endured a depressing run of circumstances that would have sent lesser men into a career change — the death of his first wife, Holly, to bone cancer in 1989; two divorces; shoulder surgery on a torn labrum the same year he became eligible for the 50-and-older senior circuit.
Through it all, a wunderkind named Willie West Wood managed just one PGA Tour title, capturing the 1996 Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic.
“I had a really good junior career, a really good college career,” Wood said. “I've had a really mediocre, at best, professional career and it would be really nice to have a fantastic Champions career, to have nice bookends there. There's nothing I can do about my PGA career now. It's over.”
This wasn't how golf was supposed to go for Wood, who assembled one of the most successful junior golf careers ever, which included winning the 1977 U.S. Junior Amateur and being named 1978 AJGA Player of the Year.
“He was Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods,” said Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder, who lured Wood to Stillwater while leading the Cowboys to eight NCAA titles as men's golf coach (1973-2005). “He won just about every junior tournament you could win. There wasn't any bigger name in junior golf. Until Tiger Woods came along, there probably wasn't anyone who approached what Willie had done as a junior player.”
Wood's prominence continued at OSU, where he won the 1982 Fred Haskins Award as national player of the year during his junior season, was Big Eight medalist and won a school-record four events. Wood was a two-time, first-team All-American and a member of the 1983 Walker Cup team.
Shortly after college, Wood and former OSU teammate Bob Tway shared the same backyard as neighbors at Oak Tree Country Club.
Although Tway tied for 54th and finished 15 strokes back two weeks ago in New York, he was among the many who reveled in Wood's triumph.
“It's one of the most popular victories I can ever recall in my years on tour,” Tway said.
At the next stop after Wood's victory, Tway crossed paths with Michael Allen, the man Wood beat on the first playoff hole to claim the title.
“I looked at him (Allen) and he smiled and said, ‘It's OK. I'm happy for him, too,' ” Tway said with a chuckle.