When Wake Forest golf coach Jerry Haas captured the Carolinas PGA section championship last fall he knew the victory would translate into a reunion of sorts with former Demon Deacon players now earning their keep on the PGA Tour — guys like his nephew, 2011 FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas, 2012 U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson and 2006 NCAA runner-up Kyle Reifers.
Their get-together will take place Aug. 17-23 at Sedgefield Country Club during the 76th playing of the Wyndham Championship. Coach Haas earned an exemption with his September win at Duke University Golf Club and the 53-year-old will be making his fourth appearance in the tournament, while his nephew finished second at last year, one stroke behind winner Camilo Villegas.
Simpson captured his first career PGA Tour victory at the Wyndham in 2011.
“It’s great to have these three Wake Forest guys in the field,” Wyndham Championship tournament director Mark Brazil said. “With Webb and Bill, we have a U.S. Open champion and a FedEx Cup champion — that’s a pretty solid way to start our field announcements, and we look forward to having (Coach Haas) with us.”
The additional local flavor is just another reason the Wyndham Championship has hit its stride during the past few years. The event now holds an important position on the PGA Tour schedule as it represents the final opportunity for some players to move into the top 125, thus securing exempt status for the following season and qualifying for the FedEx Cup Playoffs, while those already qualified can improve their seeding.
In addition, starting in 2016 the Wyndham Championship could play a more prominent role in who will make the U.S. Ryder Cup team. The PGA of America tweaked the points system allowing golfers to continue accumulating points all the way up until The Barclays, one of the FedEx Cup playoff tournaments. In previous Ryder Cup years, points were awarded only up until the PGA Championship.
For years, the Wyndham Championship had been considered a “Greensboro” event. But today, the Piedmont Triad region — with a population of 1.6 million — has evolved into one large market for economic development. Recognizing this, the 2008 move back to Sedgefield CC furthers the regionalism concept — its proximity to Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point and Burlington luring residents to take a greater ownership stake in its success.
In return, the Wyndham Championship serves as an economic engine of the entire Triad because the tournament organizers are committed to use foundation proceeds to fund not only charities, but economic development as well — both inside and outside of Greensboro — namely with The Piedmont Triad Research Park in Winston-Salem and Furnishings initiatives in High Point.
Arguably the most important local flavor for the Wyndham Championship came with Winston-Salem-based BB&T’s role in the recent 10-year sponsorship extensions from Wyndham Worldwide and BB&T. BB&T has been sponsoring the event since the early 1980s and remains the tournament’s longest-standing sponsor.
So important is the relationship that in April, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem made his second Sedgefield visit in eight months to help announce Wyndham Worldwide and BB&T’s 10-year extension as title sponsor of the tournament, continuing its commitment through 2026. They become only the fourth title sponsor in PGA Tour history to extend 10 years.
“Wyndham has had a very positive impact on every aspect of the tournament, from helping the Piedmont Triad Charitable Foundation’s efforts to increase charitable contributions through the Wyndham Championship, to elevating the tournament’s visibility and on-site enjoyment through creative brand activities and promotions,” Finchem said.
“We at BB&T are excited to continue our strong partnership with the Wyndham Championship,” BB&T chairman and CEO Kelly King said. “As one of the showcase events on the PGA TOUR, the Wyndham supports local charities through the Piedmont Triad Charitable Foundation, creates commerce in our community and elevates the profile of the Piedmont Triad.”
Of course, outstanding action on the golf course doesn’t hurt, either. Bolstered by a leaderboard packed with fan favorites and a popular champion making his long-awaited return to the winner’s circle, the 75th playing of the Wyndham Championship was one for the books.
In his early days on the PGA Tour, the dashing Colombian golfer Villegas earned the nickname “Hombre Araña” (“Spiderman”) for the crouching, contortionist pose he assumed when reading greens.
The Florida Gator four-time All-American became a fan favorite — particularly among the female sect — after capturing both the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship in the span of one month in October 2008. But his last Tour win, the 2010 Honda Classic, had come four agonizingly long years ago — or, in the world of professional golf, a veritable lifetime.
For Villegas, his extended dry spell ended at Sedgefield. Trailing by four shots after 54 holes, Villegas shot a final-round 63 to win the Wyndham by one shot over Haas and Freddie Jacobson.
“You got to stay strong and keep working,” Villegas said. “I’ve always done that. I’ve always been a hard worker and always kind of believed in myself, sometimes more than others.”
In Sunday’s final round on Sedgefield’s revered Donald Ross layout, Villegas recorded seven straight 3s en route to a front-nine 29. Four other players — Jacobson, Nick Watney and Heath Slocum — reached 17-under at some point in their final round.
After Villegas posted the number first and headed to the Sedgefield clubhouse, where he said he was simply hoping to get into a playoff. Instead, every other contender stumbled home — and Villegas didn’t have to hit another shot to win.
“I didn’t want to go to the range,” Villegas said. “I stayed (in the clubhouse). There was TV, nice air conditioner there in the scorer’s tent. I was hanging there with my caddie and watching a little golf.
“(It is) tough sometimes when you’re watching it, you can’t control. When the boys got closer to the last hole, you get a little anxious and you don’t have a golf club in your hand — you can’t control. Sometimes it’s better to be on the golf course.”
The win propelled Villegas into the 37th position of the 2014 FedEx Cup entering the championship playoffs. Villegas also earned an invitation into the 2015 Masters and two years full-exempt status on the PGA Tour.
“Just the nature of the game,” Villegas said. “Ups, downs, good years, average years, bad years — and if you ask any player out in the field everybody wants to play better.
“The game has been good to me. I have no complaints. Do I want to play better? Yes. Do I feel like I have played to my potential the last 2 ½ years? No. But again, it’s not everything about golf. You got to be little bit easy on yourself and just enjoy life.”
Finchem paid a surprise visit to Sedgefield before Sunday’s final round and said the atmosphere around the tournament almost felt as if the FedEx Cup Playoffs had begun.
“The Wyndham is kind of a play-in and you see this field affected by players who really need to play well to get in next week, which is the same phenomena you have during the playoffs and then you see players who are in but want to improve their position,” Finchem said.
All of it making clear why the region has rallied around the Wyndham Championship — and the Wyndham Championship has rallied around the region.