Tour Insider: Unexpected downtime gets Wilkinson's year off to hot start

McDermott/Getty Images
Wilkinson is the highest-ranked player on the money list without a win.
June 12, 2013
By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM

Tim Wilkinson isn’t really the superstitious type, though he’ll tell you he adheres to one general habit: “Whatever worked the day before.”

A cheery comeback, yes. But it’s also safe to presume the New Zealander doesn’t find much need these days to shake things up.

Casting aside a belated start to his season, Wilkinson has become “Top-15 Tim” around Tour leaderboards. He’s finished outside that zone just once in eight starts this year, virtually locking up a trip back to the PGA TOUR this fall.

“Everything’s a little bit better,” said the lefty, who stands No. 3 on the money list for this week’s Air Capital Classic even without a win to his name. “I’ve hit more fairways, hit more greens. Holing a couple more putts a tournament. I guess they all add up to more consistent scoring.”

Until Michael Putnam won back-to-back in Mexico and Maryland, Wilkinson was arguably the steadiest player on the circuit. And Putnam’s hot streak doesn’t erase the pair of missed cuts on his chart.

Or consider this: Wilkinson has just four rounds this year in which he’s failed to at least match par. Two came last time out at the Mid-Atlantic Championship, where TPC Potomac is likely to rank as the toughest course on the schedule.

“Rather than hoping to play well,” Wilkinson said, “you sort of know you’re going to play well.”

He’s been in the zone before, during a PGA TOUR rookie season in 2008 that included a runner-up finish in Texas and a third in New Orleans. But even that had a shorter shelf life than what he’s going through now.

Perhaps that forced delay to the start of his season wasn’t such a bad thing.

Travel restrictions during a slow-moving application for U.S. permanent resident status kept Wilkinson from playing the Tour’s opening swing through Panama, Colombia and Chile. His first start didn’t come until the Tour made its first U.S. stop in Louisiana.

“It’s just a long process,” said Wilkinson, whose wife, Mandy, grew up in Jacksonville. “In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have waited until after [last] season before applying for it. But at the time, we had no idea how long it would take. I started in November; it just can take a while.”

Wilkinson and his wife both had to supply officials with family histories, fingerprints and medical tests. The process also requires a personal interview, with administrators on the lookout for fraudulent cases.

“It’s how it should be,” said the 34-year-old golfer, who has played U.S. tours since turning pro in 2003. “It shouldn’t be easy to emigrate, I don’t think... I understand. I’m patient. I didn’t get too worried about it.”

Sufficiently grounded, Wilkinson focused his energy on the practice range, working to flatten out his backswing and get better extension through the ball. Though he’s had good results before in Panama and Chile, he admits the changes may not have been ready in time.

“If I had played, I wouldn’t have done very well at all,” he said. “Maybe that extra time helped cement what I was doing, I guess. Maybe I need a long offseason more often.”

There was another silver lining, too – more time at home to prepare for the arrival of daughter Jemma, born in March.

Three rounds into his season debut, Wilkinson matched his career low with a 7-under 64 in Louisiana. He wound up five shots behind winner Edward Loar. Two weeks later – and days after his green card was finalized – he went to Brazil, shot four rounds in the 60s and tied for 10th.

Wilkinson’s only blip came at the South Georgia Classic, where he was disqualified for signing a wrong first-round score. Other than that, he’s done pretty much everything except take home a trophy.

Wilkinson came close a week after his DQ, finishing a stroke behind Brendon Todd when rain washed out the final round of the Stadion Classic at UGA. A 6-foot par save at No. 18 could have forced a tie, but he didn’t read enough break.

“We all kind of felt like we weren’t going to play on Sunday,” he said. “I knew the position I was in.”

The result still matched Wilkinson’s best Tour finish, at the 2005 Oregon Classic that also was trimmed to 54 holes by rain.

There’s still the matter of winning, though. Asked to recall his last tournament victory, Wilkinson didn’t hedge. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”

Wilkinson produced several wins in his amateur days, including the 2000 New Zealand Amateur and New Zealand Stroke Play Championship. But he’s still seeking his first in a four-round professional event.

“It’s not that I haven’t won, it’s just remembering how to do it,” he said. “You go from a pool of players when you’re the biggest fish in the pond – I won a lot in New Zealand – then you’re thrown into the mix in professional golf, and there’s 156 players [in the field].”

For Wilkinson to achieve his goal of finishing No. 1 on the money list, he’ll have to win somewhere. Putnam’s two victories have opened up a gap of $132,876 over No. 2 Loar. Wilkinson is another $53,802 behind.

“I think you need a win or two to win the money list,” he said.

Either way, Wilkinson can look forward to another stint on the PGA TOUR, where he took home more than $1.1 million in that rookie season. The following year, though, a torn ligament in his right thumb derailed his game.

“I feel when I get back there, I can play well,” he said. “I’m a pretty down-to-earth person, and I know a lot of players out there. I won’t be overawed by it.”