E.A. Sports Today

The shot that brought him back

[corner-ad id=1]25 years ago, Texas pro Willbanks embraced golf after one random 8-iron, aspires to play Champions Tour

Rob Willbanks (R) gets some course tips from pro-am teammate Ron McClellan as they leave the 14th tee at Cider Ridge GC Monday.

Rob Willbanks (R) gets some course tips from pro-am teammate Ron McClellan as they leave the 14th tee at Cider Ridge GC Monday.

ROB WILLBANKS

ROB WILLBANKS

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD — The inspiration one finds for taking up the game of golf is as unique as the individual. For Rob Willbanks, it was something as simple as one sweet-feeling 8-iron among the hundreds of swings he took the first time he played – and the raves it drew from the man who invited him — that inspired him to embrace the game and ultimately chase the dream of one day playing on the Champions Tour.

Willbanks never gave much thought to golf when he was looking for something the occupy his free time once he returned home to California after graduating from the University of Texas as a “19 minutes a season” basketball player on Tom Penders’ early Longhorn teams.

A week after getting out of school the father of his then-girlfriend invited him to their very exclusive Seven Oaks Country Club to try the game that gave him so much enjoyment over the years. It went about as you might expect, shots flying in all directions — when he did make contact — most of them bobbling along the ground.

But then came the swing that changed his life. He caught an 8-iron flush, the way you don’t even feel when the ball leaves the clubface. The ball flew high over a stand of trees and landed softly back in position. He remembers the shot and the feeling to this day, almost a quarter century later.

“It was one of those things where you can hit all these shots and you can’t hit it in the air, you’re frustrated, you’re swinging out of your tail and then there’s that one shot,” Willbanks said Monday.

It was all that his girlfriend’s father talked about at dinner that night. It was truly that proverbial one shot that keeps you coming back. It inspired him to buy a $50 set of clubs from a buddy who worked in a sporting goods store and bite the bullet for a few lessons. A few years later he got the idea of wanting to play professionally.

All because of the one shot that brought him back.

“It was monumental,” he recalled. “I never thought that it would ever grow into something that intense … but I’m not afraid of the hard work to go forward.”

Fast way forward. He bounced around on several mini-tours without making many cuts, but continued to grind. He made an effort to return to the Hooters Tour a few years ago, but found he had little in common with the kids he was getting paired with. Now, at 48, he’s in his second year on the Sunbelt Senior Tour with aspirations of playing on the Champions Tour in two years.

“It’s a dream I’ve had ever since I wanted to try to turn professional and playing the other tours,” he said. “It’s something I think that’s obtainable. I think I keep my body in pretty good shape for a guy my age.”

Willbanks drove all the way from a weekend event in East Texas in order to make Monday’s pro-am, where he saw Cider Ridge for the first time and absorbed every piece of insight his winning team of local amateurs willingly offered.

The three-day Oxford Senior Open that starts Tuesday will be his second Sunbelt start of the season. He finished eighth in his only other start in March and is looking for a top five finish this week as his self-described rags to riches story continues to move toward the Champions Tour.

“That’s the goal,” he said. “Try to give it a shot for two to three years out there and if I make it great. If not I’ll try to Monday qualify in events and if that doesn’t happen then I’ve got a great place to go back to in East Texas. My wife opens the door whether I shoot 66 or 86; that’s the greatest thing.”

Being part of the winning pro-am team is a good sign. Last week at Chesley Oaks, Roger Rowland shot 8-under-par 63 in the pro-am and went on to run away with the main event.

Even before the first shot is even struck in this year’s inaugural tournament, tour and course officials are talking about bringing the event back again. Securing a sponsor and a more conducive date would help its chances of success.

“You heard (Tour director Don Barnes) talk this morning about how happy they are so far just by seeing the place during the practice rounds and I want you to know we’re mutually excited as well,” Cider Ridge director of golf Doug Wert said. “We’ve already had some discussions on some bigger things we can do here. The big part on our part in this area is going to be finding sponsors. We do that we’ll see more players in this. I think that will happen. I do.”

Five-year-old Conner Moore of Oxford is fascinated by the gadgets John Whitty uses during his trick-shot exhibitions. (Photo by B.J. Franklin)

Five-year-old Conner Moore of Oxford is fascinated by the gadgets John Whitty uses during his trick-shot exhibitions. (Photo by B.J. Franklin)

Sunbelt Senior Tour
Oxford Senior Open Pro-Am
At Cider Ridge GC

Tuesday’s first-round pairings
8 a.m. – Danny Gonzales, Round Rock, Texas; Danny Edwards, Scottsdale, Ariz.; Jim Doing, Verona, Wis.
8:09 – Roger Rowland, Ocala, Fla.; Tim Conley, Braselton, Ga.; Bob Kurtz, Cullman.
8:18 – Tommy Edwards, Duluth, Ga.; Randy Kennedy, Buford, Ga.; Mike Beaver, Newberry, Fla.
8:27 – Dave Pickett, Olive Springs, Tenn.; Jim White, Birmingham; Bob Flanagan, Lawrenceville, Ga.
8:36 – Rob Willbanks, Kilgore, Texas; John Whitty, Longs, S.C.; Alan Bezin, Pinson.

Monday’s pro-am results
First flight

x-55 – Rob Willbanks, Al Muskewitz, Dennis Reaves, Ron McClellan
55 – Jerry Irwin, Doug Bragg, Gary Austin, Don Maddox
x-won on scorecard playoff (eagle on 18)

Second flight
58 – Danny Edwards, Chad Moore, Nate Pearce, Jason Johnson
60 – Randy Kennedy, John Richards, Wayne Wilcox, Patricia Wilcox

Myrtle Beach-area pro John Whitty hits shots with an extra-long driver during his trick-shot exhibition prior to the Oxford Senior Open Pro-Am Monday. (Photo by B.J. Franklin)

Myrtle Beach-area pro John Whitty hits shots with an extra-long driver during his trick-shot exhibition prior to the Oxford Senior Open Pro-Am Monday. (Photo by B.J. Franklin)



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