Former pro Dean Wilson had to leave the Tour to really hit it big

September 11, 2017

I recently played in another Uncle Tony Invitational, the annual 24-man Bacchanalia at Bandon Dunes put on by my longtime friend Matt Ginella, of Golf Channel fame. It’s a diverse group in age, geography and golfing ability.

This year we were joined by a 47-year-old newcomer who blended seamlessly into the merriment, partaking lustily in the eating, drinking and trash-talking while carrying his own bag across six rounds. There were only a few clues that Dean Wilson was not like the rest of us. The first was the elegance of his action, which produced towering draws that were untouched by the wind, even when Dean was wielding his gorgeous Linksoul persimmon woods. Then there was the afternoon on Old Mac when a group of us, idling on the tee box of a par 3, were discussing hole-in-ones. Dean casually mentioned that he’d enjoyed aces at the Byron Nelson Classic, Bay Hill Invitational, Colonial, New Orleans Classic and a few more events he couldn’t remember.

I’m pretty sure it was the only time on the entire trip that, unsolicited, Dean brought up his Tour career, during which he won the 2006 International and racked up 21 top-10 finishes and $8.9 million. (He also won six times on the Japan Golf Tour.) Going into Bandon, the UTI vets were wondering why such an accomplished golfer would want to hang out with a bunch of chops like us. But the joy that Dean radiated, and the ease with which he mixed with his fellow travelers, told the story. “To me, that’s what golf is all about,” Dean told me. “Strollin’ down the fairway with friends, tryin’ the best you can on your shots, and just soaking in the camaraderie of it all.”

My partner at the UTI, Steve “SJ” John, had banged up his ribs on the eve of the event but soldiered on by self-medicating with Advil and a flask of fine whisky. Ginella’s pard, Tim “Heady” Hetrick, tweaked his back and then, during our final round, stepped in a hole and wrenched his ankle, but he kept fighting till the bitter end. “Heady was walking around like Frankenstein out there,” Dean said with a laugh. “You could see that SJ was hurting, but he never stopped smiling. Believe it or not, I was inspired by those guys. They weren’t out there for the money or anything like that, they just didn’t want to miss out on the fun and competition. That’s the love of the game. That’s pure, man.”

Dean walked away from the Tour pretty much cold turkey in 2012, burnt-out by the travel and cutthroat ethos. “It started to really bug me how, during tournament rounds, no one ever talked to each other because they were grinding so hard or because they were pissed off,” he says. “Honestly, I looked forward more to the practice rounds—they were more fun.” He had taken good care of his money, so he settled into an early retirement in San Diego as a carefree bachelor. He joined a couple of swank country clubs but, barred from competing in the member-guests and club championships, never felt quite at home.

Then, on a whim, he decided to check out Goat Hill Park, bringing along his faithful yellow lab, Toby. The Goat is a 4,454-yard par-65 located in a scrappy corner of nearby Oceanside, and nurturing the course—along with the kids in the surrounding neighborhood—has become a passion project for Linksoul founder John Ashworth. He and Dean have become fast friends, and it was Ash who brought him to the UTI. Having grown up on a humble muni on Oahu, Dean fell in love with Goat Hill’s chill vibe, and it’s where he now plays most of his golf. “I’m going back to my roots,” he says. He even paid his $50 to become a member, allowing him to compete in—and win—the club championship. Instead of overpowering the course, Dean has switched to throwback equipment, to help heighten the challenge. “I’ve fallen back in love with the game,” he says. “It’s so refreshing to play where I want and when I want, using whatever funky equipment I like and surrounded by people who are having fun.”

Dean has become a strong supporter of the caddie program that Ashworth has launched at the Goat, and he gets as much out of playing with the kids as vice versa. “They all look up to him,” says Ashworth. “Dean’s a great example to them of how far this game can take you even while you stay true to who you are.”

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