CLE ELUM, Wash. – No, the winner of the U.S. Open sectional qualifier at the Tumble Creek Club was not a college player.
The winner was 34-year-old Wil Collins of Albuquerque, N.M., who was shadowed during every step of the 36-hole competition by his 72-year-old teacher, Dave Walters. Together they formed a formidable duo — Collins hitting brilliant shots, Walters talking to himself in the gallery as if he was sending thought waves to his longtime pupil.
Collins shot 70-68 on a windy day at the par-70 course. On stroke behind was Cheng-Tsung Pan, the Taiwanese native who is about to start his junior year at the University of Washington.
The two qualifying spots went to Collins and Pan, while Canadian Tour player Michael Gligic became first alternate after stumbling with a crucial bogey on the 35th hole and falling out of a tie with Pan.
The story of how Collins became a skilled golfer is a tribute to Walters, who is typical of so many PGA club professionals teaching the game in relative anonymity.
“It’s because I love golf and I love teaching golf,” said Walters, who was head professional at Rapid City (S.D.) Country Club when an 11-year-old boy wondered into his golf shop one day and asked if he could take lessons.
Rapid City CC is a private club, and the young boy’s family didn’t hold a membership. No matter.
“I have a lot of influence with the board of directors,” Walters told Collins, who was about to gain a permanent instructor.
“Before I ever met Wil, I knew he was the boy who would jump over the fence and chip and putt,” Walters recalled. “He was sneaking onto the course, so I guess I made it all legal. He had a passion for the game, and I wasn’t going to disregard that kind of attitude.”
Collins ultimately accepted a golf scholarship to the University of New Mexico, where he won the Ben Hogan Award in 2001 as the top collegiate player in the combined areas of academics and golf.
Now, 11 years after he turned pro, Collins is still chasing his golf dream, mostly on the Canadian Tour. “I still think my best years are ahead of me,” he said.
Walters, too, seems to be pursuing his golf dream. He worked as general manager of Santa Fe (N.M.) Country Club and now works as something of an emeritus PGA figure at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Wash.
“I do whatever they tell me to do,” he joked. “Sahalee is one of those special golf places where everybody walks and where everybody has deep feelings about golf.”
Pan, 21, already has been a semifinalist for the Ben Hogan Award and a third-team All-American. He was runner-up to Tianlang Guan, the 14-year-old Chinese whiz kid, in the 2012 Asian Amateur.
“I had never heard of him before that tournament,” Pan said, “but I am very happy for him. He is good for the game. Oh, sure, I hope I can beat him this year, win the tournament and play in the Masters.”
Playing in the Masters is something Collins would like to do, but for now he is concentrating on the U.S. Open. He played once before, at Pinehurst Resort in 2005, and readily admits he was not prepared for the experience.
“This time will be different,” he said. “Everything will be different, just because I’m an old guy. Well, not too old.”