Beating the Odds
story by Grady Timmons
photos by Ann Cecil
By the time Dean Wilson was thirteen years old, he already knew where he was headed in life: He was going to become a professional golfer and
play on the PGA Tour. To anyone who would listen, he would say: "I’m gonna be the best; there’s no doubt about it." But the doubters were everywhere.
"Do you know what the odds are of making it on the PGA Tour?" one of his high school teachers asked him.
"No, I don’t know the odds," Dean answered. "Do you?"
"Well, I know that it’s really difficult," the teacher said.
"Then I better not waste my time talking to you, " Dean replied. "I need to go practice."
Youthful defiance sometimes has its rewards. For Dean Hiroshi Wilson, the payoff came last December at the PGA Tour Qualifying SchoolQ’ Schoolin La Quinta, California. Twenty years after he began chasing his dream, and ten years after turning pro, the thirty-three-year-old Hawaii-born golfer finally made it to the Tour.
To get there, Wilson had to survive Q’ School, golf’s ultimate rite of passagea six-round death march that rewards only the top thirty-five finishers (plus players who are tied for those positions) with PGA Tour cards. At the 2002 qualifier, Wilson finished in a tie for eleventh. Afterward, he described the experience as "gut-wrenching"the toughest thing he had ever been through. And he had been through Q’ School seven times before.
"Dean Wilson is a kid who came out of nowhere," said Bruce Brockbank, the golf coach at Brigham Young University in Utah, where Wilson was a walk-on. "Everyone thought he would never make it to the PGA Tour. But he worked really hard and became an outstanding golfer. He’s a great story."
Wilson is indeed a remarkable story. He was a late-bloomer and an overachiever, a boy who made the most of his talent by maintaining an unshakable conviction in his own ability to succeed, even when others didn’t. Growing up, he had few advantages. He was a Japanese-American kid from a working-class family. He went to a public high school and learned to play golf on a municipal course, with no swing instructor or motivational coach. There were no Mainland college scholarship offers, no well-heeled investors waiting to back him on tour.
For seven years after he turned pro in 1992, Wilson toiled in relative obscurity around the world before emerging as a force on the Japan PGA Tour. Between 2000 and 2002, he won six tournaments and more than $2 million, vaulting into the top 70 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Suddenly, after years of hard work, he had arrived.
But in Wilson’s mind there was nothing sudden or difficult about it. "It wasn’t a big struggle," he says. "I was doing something I always wanted to do, so I just kept at it. Step by step, year by year, I improved. It was all the years of consistently working at it that paid off."
Wilson grew up in the rainy suburb of Kaneohe, on Oahu’s windward side. Grace Wilson, his Japanese mother, was an avid golfer and introduced him to the game when he was thirteen. Pretty soon, she was dropping him off daily at the nearby Pali Golf Course, and he progressed enough to play high school and junior golf. "I won some tournaments," he says, "but nothing big. I wasn’t one of the top golfers. There was always someone better than me."
Even so, Wilson was certain of his potential. He would watch the better players and say, "Pfffttt, I can do that." He would even tell them, "One day I’m going to beat you, and you’ll never beat me again. I’m gonna be the best."
Looking back, Wilson can’t believe he used to be so brash. "But it wasn’t cockiness," he says, "because I wasn’t any good. I just had it in my mind that I could do it. It was just a matter of learning and applying it all."
After high school, Wilson wanted to play at a major Mainland university, but only the coach from BYU-Hawaii, a small Mormon college on Oahu’s northeast shore, called. He told Dean, "Play here a year, and if you do well, transfer up to the main Utah campus." Wilson recalls: "I thought, hey, there it is. There’s my path to play at a Mainland school. So that’s what I did."
At BYU in Utah, Wilson had a crack at a big-time college golf program. Although he still wasn’t all that good, he talked then-coach Karl Tucker into allowing him to come out for the team. Tucker didn’t normally allow walk-ons, but he saw something in Wilsonand he was right. Wilson broke into the starting five near the end of his first year. Between 1990 and 1992, he and Mike Weir, now a star on the PGA Tour, helped lead BYU to three straight Western Athletic Conference titles. In 1991, Wilson was the individual WAC champion. Finally, he was getting somewhere.
But he still wasn’t ready for the PGA Tour. After college, he turned professional and went abroad. Family and friends gave him $7,000, and he parlayed that into a seven-year sojourn playing on the Australian, Canadian, Asian, and U.S. BUY.COM tours. He never won at any of these stops, but he always earned enough to continue his quest.
In 2000, Wilson qualified for the lucrative Japanese PGA Tour, then missed the cut in his first seven events. With only two more guaranteed starts, he had to produce or it was sayonara. "When I got to the next tournament," he remembers, "I told myself, This is it. You’re no longer trying to fix this or improve that. You’re a professional golfer. Get out there and get the ball in the hole. That’s all you have to do.’"
That week, Wilson made the cut. The next week he played againand won. The victory was worth $166,000 and earned him Rookie of the Year honors. "All of a sudden, I went from having zero money to being a tournament winner," he says. "It was a real lesson for me."
In 2001, he won the Japan PGA match-play and stroke-play championships, both major events in Japan. That earned him a five-year qualifying exemption and a spot in the U.S. Open, where he added to his stature by tying for thirtieth. For the year, he won $950,361, second in overall earnings in Japan.
That December, however, he again failed to get through 'Q’ School. "Sure, I was discouraged," he says. "But my attitude was always, if I can’t qualify, then I’m not prepared. What do I have to do to get better?"
Wilson returned to Japan in 2002 and had another strong season, winning twice and placing fourth on the money list. Wilson must now win a tournament or finish the year in the top 125 to maintain his PGA Tour card. Not surprisingly, he is confident he can do itthe skeptics be damned.
"For every person who is encouraging, there are twenty who aren’t," he says. "People just don’t want to say you can succeed. When I really think about it, my motivation has not been for myself; it’s been to prove that if some kid hitting balls at the Pali Golf Course wants to play on the PGA Tour, he can. You don’t need anything special. You don’t need special coaches. You don’t need fancy clubs. What it takes is just to pursue it and work at it for a long time. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it."