- Associated Press - Thursday, August 15, 2013

ENDICOTT, N.Y. (AP) - Willie Wood struggled for so long that when he finally notched that breakthrough victory he knew exactly where to celebrate. No need for anything lavish.

“I went to a Wendy’s drive-thru for dinner,” Wood said, recalling the aftermath of his triumph a year ago at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open after making the field as an open qualifier. “That was exciting.”

And career changing. The Champions Tour win at En-Joie Golf Club ended a victory drought of more than 16 years.

“It boosted my confidence level,” said Wood, who beat Michael Allen on the first hole of a playoff. “It’s fun to feel good about your game. Probably the worst thing is expectations change. Not just expectations for me, expectations from other people. I used to get texts from other people when I’d finish 25th in a tournament saying, `well done.’”

“Now, if I finish 25th it’s, `Hang in there. It’ll be OK next week.’”

Wood followed his first victory on the senior tour with a third-place finish at the Boeing Classic in Seattle, missing a playoff there by one shot, then came from five strokes back to win the inaugural Pacific Links Hawaii Championship.

Two wins in three starts. The reward: Wood was selected player of the month in August and September.

“Those three weeks were kind of life-changing for me,” Wood said. “It definitely was a career-changing month and a half. Having to Monday qualify and not know what your schedule is going to be for the week is stressful. It changed my schedule immensely. It’s nice to be able to set a schedule. There’s no cut, so you know you’re leaving on Sunday. That’s nice, and I’m hoping it lasts a long time.”

Whoever wins the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open most certainly will cherish the moment. He will be the 1,000th tournament champion in the history of the Champions Tour, which began in 1980 at the Atlantic City Country Club in Atlantic City, N.J. Don January, who won that first tournament, will be on hand for the trophy presentation.

In that inaugural year, the schedule consisted of four events. The other three played that year were at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., Suntree in Melbourne, Fla. and Turnberry Isle North Miami Beach, Fla. The purse at the Atlantic City Senior International was $125,000 and the total prize money for the four-event season was $475,000. January took home $20,000.

Since that first season, the Champions Tour, the brainchild of former commissioner Deane Beman, has hosted tournaments in 38 states and visited eight countries.

“I know when we started all of this we just kind of felt like we still wanted to compete and play, but there really wasn’t a place for us,” January said. “We thought we had a product to sell, but we didn’t know how the market would react. Not any of us ever dreamed what it is today.”

One guy will relish just playing no matter where he finishes _ Joey Sindelar, who grew up nearby and still lives in Horseheads, N.Y. A two-time winner at En-Joie in the 1980s when it hosted the old B.C. Open on the PGA Tour, Sindelar has a new look _ he’s dropped at least 50 pounds _ and a new swing after undergoing back surgery in November to correct spinal stinosis.

Dealing with an arthritic back has been a stiff challenge for the affable 55-year-old Sindelar.

“It’s been really almost more scary than frustrating because I honestly thought I was never going to stick a tee in the ground again,” said Sindelar, who’s made just five starts this year and has a scoring average of 73.27. “It just wasn’t getting better. Four months ago, I really still thought I wasn’t ever going to play again, it was that bad.

“I’m not a golfer yet, but I have finished three tournaments in a row, which thrills me to death,” he said. “I’m not sure what kind of competitive ability I’ll have this week. I’m certainly not at the top of my game.”

But he’s here, and that’s really all that matters.

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