By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM Contributor
VALDOSTA, Ga. – When one needs to get away from it all, a Caribbean island sounds like the perfect escape.
And Will Wilcox needed to get away from it all.
Fed up with bad choices and influences that turned 2012 into a season of discontent, the Alabama native hopped a plane shortly after New Year’s for the quietude of St. Croix, seeking to rebuild his game and life.
“It’s like a little cocoon,” Wilcox said of his two-month stay. “You can go down there and just be you.”
The payoff came Sunday, living out every young pro’s dream with a victory stroll up the 18th fairway of the South Georgia Classic. Aided by his second holeout for eagle in as many days, Wilcox scored his first Web.com Tour title with a four-shot triumph.
“That was sweet,” said Wilcox, who faced a couple of nervous moments despite a seven-shot cushion to start the day. “I’ve been dreaming about it my whole life, and here we are.”
A 1-over-par 73 was enough for Wilcox to finish the job, never letting anyone get closer than the final margin. The heavy work, of course, had been done a day earlier when he toured Kinderlou Forest Golf Club in a 63 that rewrote the course record – and was five shots better than anyone else Saturday.
“He’s just worked really hard, and he deserves it,” said his mother, Kim Wilcox, the UAB women’s golf coach who made the 4 ½-hour drive from Birmingham, Ala., late Saturday after her son put himself in position for his breakthrough.
A PGA TOUR card, too, could be as close as a couple of top-10 finishes away.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Will Wilcox, who came out of the Monday qualifying ranks in 2011 to establish himself as a tour regular. “I’ve just made some big changes in my life. That’s what I needed to do – and [need to] continue with.”
After finishing 36th on the money list two years ago, Wilcox regressed in 2012. He made the cut in just 10 of 23 starts, with only two finishes among the top 10. Most glaring was a three-month stretch in which he didn’t cash a paycheck – eight missed cuts and a WD.
The nadir came later, though, when he didn’t come close to advancing through the second stage of PGA TOUR qualifying. Though he hit at least 16 greens in regulation in each of his first three rounds at TPC Craig Ranch, he found himself 10 shots off the qualifying pace.
“I wasn’t stable; I was feeling bad,” he said. “I knew I was hitting it OK, but to be focused enough to play at a high level in this game, you can’t live the way I was.”
Though Wilcox has been hesitant to divulge specifics of that lifestyle, he did acknowledge too many late nights were spent with a drink in his hand. The connection to his erratic play couldn’t be ignored.
“I just realized that 2012 was a waste of time,” he said. “You watch guys like [new Masters champion] Adam Scott – I doubt he’s out having nights on the town.”
And if that wasn’t enough of a wakeup call, he got it when he realized that finishing 73rd on last year’s money list relegated him to limited status.
“That was the biggest motivating factor of everything,” he said. “Last year I had full [status] – I get into every event, it doesn’t matter, whatever. But when I didn’t get into [the 2013 opener in] Panama, it was time to get my butt in gear.”
On Jan. 4, Wilcox took off for St. Croix. The island came at the suggestion of one of his sponsors, who owns a condo that was getting little use. Wilcox was free to live there while putting the pieces back together.
“It was the best environment for him to be in,” said Kim Wilcox, who remains her son’s swing coach.
Will Wilcox acknowledged the process wasn’t easy. A personal trainer helped him get back into competitive shape, and he spent hours on the range sharpening a short game that had unraveled.
“I really struggled for the first month and a half, just trying to physically get back where I wanted to be,” he said. “And mentally, I was still down and out from 2012 and being an idiot.”
Said Kim Wilcox: “He could have been so much better, and he knew it. As a parent, you sit there and try to tell them over and over again [to make changes]. You don’t know what it is that makes things click in their heads. He made it click on his own.”
Wilcox got into the year’s second event in Colombia, but missed the cut. A week later, a tie for 12th at the Chile Classic offered hope – and a higher status when the reshuffle for positioning took place.
Even so, Wilcox gave no indication that a week like this was on the horizon. Mom wasn’t even planning to attend, ready to catch her breath after UAB hosted last week’s conference tournament.
Then came Saturday’s 63, highlighted when Wilcox holed out from 193 yards away at No. 12 – Kinderlou Forest’s toughest hole. A second bolt came Sunday, when his wedge from 135 yards at No. 7 trickled into the cup.
That quickly erased a couple of early bogeys that had whittled Wilcox’s lead to four shots.
“I can’t believe I holed out two shots on the weekend,” he marveled. “That’s mind-blowing; I’ve never done that. I’ve had four hole-in-ones in my life, maybe five. It’s just the damndest thing. I don’t know what got into me.”
Call it positive energy. Call it better golf through cleaner living, perhaps.
Better yet, just call Will Wilcox a champion.