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A Thinking Man's Game

Almost 20 years after being paralyzed in a motorcycle accident, Flip Wilson's son David keeps pushing to play the round of his life

October 2012

David Wilson had it made. The son of '70s TV star Flip Wilson, he grew up in a beachfront mansion in Malibu. Flip coined some of the era's most popular catchphrases--"Here come the judge" and "When you're hot, you're hot" and "What you see is what you get!" He made the cover of Time magazine as "TV's First Black Superstar."

Flip played celebrity golf with tour pros and presidents but never broke 100. Tall, athletic David was the golfer in the family. "I was decent," he says. "Got my handicap down to 2."

David's silky swing generated just enough power to get him around Riviera Country Club in the low to mid-70s, but his real strength was course management--staying out of trouble, thinking a shot or two ahead. In the early '90s he moved to Palm Springs, where he could play and practice all day while taking classes at the College of the Desert. "I was dreaming of Q school, but it's a long way from 2 to scratch, and a long way from scratch to the tour. So I studied country-club management." Anything to make a career in the game.


His father was retired by then, living high off the millions from his show and investments. Flip sailed around the world and raced high-altitude balloons with his friend Rocky Aoki, the Benihana founder. (When Flip told a pretty girl he was the world's only black helium-balloon pilot, she said, "What's black helium?") And Flip went crazy for motorcycles, zooming around L.A. on a Harley-Davidson Softail.

David was no biker--it's tough lugging your clubs from PGA West to Desert Dunes on a motorcycle. But his dad bought him a Yamaha anyway. "Think you can keep up with your old man?" Flip asked.

On St. Patrick's Day 1993, David crashed on an access road behind the Palm Desert Marriott and was found unconscious. The next thing he knew he was lying on his back, looking up at the stars.

"That was nearly 20 years ago," David says, "and I'm still trying to save a couple strokes."

He's longer off the tee these days. His bunker game is a little better. And there's one other game-changer: Ever since the motorcycle accident, David Wilson has been paralyzed from the shoulders down. Since March 17, 1993, he hasn't walked or even stood on his two feet. Since that day, his golf has been all in his head.

David Wilson

A motorcycle accident in 1993 changed David's life forever.

MENTAL GOLF ISN'T EASY

Lying in a steel-framed hospital bed, David, 52, stares at the ceiling of the room where he spends his days and nights. Picturing himself on a golf course, he thinks his way from tee to green. American POWs did the same thing during the Vietnam War, imagining rounds of golf during long stretches in solitary confinement. One report told of a soldier who stayed sane by playing a full 18-hole round. "He would create the trees, the smell of freshly trimmed grass. He felt the grip of the club in his hands as he played his shots...the setup, the downswing and follow-through. Watched the ball arc down the fairway and land at the exact spot he had selected. All in his mind."

David says mental golf isn't as easy as it sounds. Not if you do it right. Sure, you could picture making an ace on every hole, but that's a Jesus-and-St.-Peter joke, not golf. The game has to be realistic, or it would be pointless. "I started out by remembering shots I had hit. Rearranging them. Then I'd picture what might happen with a different club, or if I tweaked my swing plane a little."

The game he developed over the years calls for concentration, visualization and muscle memory. As it evolved he replaced his early-'90s clubs with better equipment. Virtual metal woods made him 10 to 15 yards longer off the tee, and he switched from vintage Wilson Staff golf balls--"I played 'em for the name"--to newer, more workable balls. But the essence of his game never changed. He's a purist that way. "I was never great at drawing the ball," he says. "I hit a high fade. So I might experiment with my grip or stance or plane and try to draw one once in a while, but it's a low-percentage shot for me." When he tries it, he misses his target more often than not. "I'm better off hanging one out to the right and hitting a longer approach."

Maybe with a hybrid. He used to carry a 1-iron and can only imagine the pleasure of whapping a hybrid shot out the rough, but he has imagined it in detail: a steep downswing, the egg-shape clubhead nipping through the grass, the ball taking off on a 7-iron trajectory. "You gotta love technology," David says.

He loves instruction, too, soaking up tips he sees on TV, DVDs and in magazines. His sister Michelle, who rolls her eyes at his talk of forward presses and kick points, reads to him, holding a magazine so that he can see the pictures. David liked a recent Hank Haney tip on weight transfer, "Footwork: Get in the Flow." Haney reminded golfers to keep their weight divided 50-50 at address, 65-35 toward the back foot at the top, 35-65 on the downswing, 10-90 at the finish. David tried it, shifting smoothly on feet he swore he could still feel. He figures a good tip might save him a shot every three or four rounds, but he's cautious about tinkering with his mental swing. Sometimes new moves feel awkward, and he plays worse. Others make so much intuitive sense that he incorporates them not all at once but gradually, his mental swing coming into focus like a super-slow-mo image. "I can improve, but not overnight. I have to keep it real." He never violates the Rules of Golf or physics. With two exceptions: For one, there are no golf carts in his world, because walking is a privilege, a joy. For another, he can make it stop raining.

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