By JOE ATKINSON
Scripps Howard News Service
November 14, 2000
His average drive is 282 yards. Last year, he won 47 of the 71 tournaments
he entered with an average score of 58.56.
And he did it all from a wheelchair.
Paul Willey has multiple sclerosis, a progressive degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system. It has taken his energy, his stamina and his ability to walk. But Monday, he overcame all of that to win the first annual Microsoft Links Virtual Golf Association Championship in Hawaii.
"I am just emotionally overwhelmed," said Willey, a 37-year-old husband and father of two from Bangor, Maine, after the tournament. "It was very intense, but I had some nice putts that I normally wouldn't have made. That was the difference in the match - my putter."
Willey began having medical problems in 1993 while serving in the Army. He received a medical discharge in 1995, a year before being diagnosed with MS.
"It felt like someone was taking an extension cord, with the bare wires, and sticking them on the back of my arm," Willey said of the disease.
That same year, Willey bought his first copy of Links, a computer golf game made by Microsoft. He then went out and bought a new computer so he could play it.
The game changed his life.
"(Links) has given him a quality of life that he may have been losing," said Willey's wife, Lori-Ann. "It's given him the mental and emotional boost he may have needed to get his mind back on course."
Once he got the new computer hooked up, Willey started playing Links every day. When he got Internet access, he started finding tournament sites, where he decided to try competing against other players.
"I looked at some of the scores and said, 'I can beat that score,' " he said. "I was just a natural at it, to be honest."
The Willeys' children also started playing the game with their father. Their 8-year-old son, Joshua, enjoyed the game so much that he started playing real golf, taking lessons from Paul's sister, a golf pro. Paul soon joined his son on the course, learning from his sister how to overcome his disability to shoot in the low 100s.
"(Paul) doesn't just sit around the house and let the MS get to him," Lori-Ann said. He plays golf at least once a week in the summers, and he helps out with whatever housework he can. The couple was even able to go hunting this year, where Paul shot a deer and Lori-Ann bagged a moose.
But it's on his computer where Willey's true passion lies, both with his golf game and on his Web site, www.withoutwheels.org, where people with similar disabilities can find inspiration through the success stories of others.
"I hope (the Web site) opens up some other doors for (disabled people)," Willey said. "It's all mental, how you handle your life."
He plans to use the $100,000 he won in the VGA championship to help expand the site, as well as to purchase 100 copies of Links for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Microsoft has agreed to match that donation with another 100 copies.
At the end of the tournament, though, Willey wasn't thinking about that. He was thinking about his children. His 14-year-old daughter, Alanda, was born in Hawaii, where the tournament was held, as was his second daughter, Dawn, who was born with a terminal illness. She passed away in 1988 before they could get her home to family in Maine, Willey said.
"That's all I can really think of so far," an emotional Willey said after his win. "She won it for me; I know."
By John Holyoke Of the NEWS Staff
Paul Willey began playing virtual golf on his home computer as a way to fill his time after the onset of multiple sclerosis ended his Army career in 1995.
On Monday, the 37-year-old Bangor man parlayed those talents into a $100,000 payday by winning the Virtual Golf Association Tour's world championship in Honolulu.
Willey nailed a 17-foot putt on the 17th hole to top Mike Schuetz of Manassas Park, Va., and win the match-play title, 2-and-1.
Willey said the atmosphere at the finals was intense.
"We were up on a stage in a sports bar," Willey said. "Joe Montana was there. Russ Francis was there. It was a real pressure cooker."
Willey, who entered the tournament with a stroke average of 58.56 on the Links 2001 game, earned his berth among the final four contestants by cruising through a 64-player tournament held Oct. 14-15.
But Willey said the fact that he'd been able to roll through the first rounds of competition worried him a bit.
"I'd never been tested," he said. "I never trailed during those first four matches. I won 'em all by four to 10 strokes."
In Hawaii, he didn't have that leisure: He rallied from one hole back with two holes to play to top Hank Hall in the semis before topping Schuetz in the finals.
Willey said despite the fact he became the world's top-ranked player, he balked at entering tournaments that offered large cash prizes in the beginning for two reasons.
First, he thought the fact he'd entered would scare other people away.
And second, he began playing for enjoyment after leaving the Army and wasn't sure he wanted to play for such high stakes.
"I didn't feel like playing this for money," Willey said. "It was so satisfying, it didn't feel right."
But after winning the world title, Willey did admit he's got plenty of plans for the $100,000.
Five percent will go to daughter Alanda, 14, and son Joshua, 8.
"That was my reward to my kids for all the times I've told them to be quiet [while I was competing on the computer] all these years," Willey said.
Willey also said he and his wife, Lori-Ann, will take the kids on a family vacation next year, and will buy 100 copies of the Links 2001 game for the Maine chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. He said that donation will be matched by Microsoft, the game's producer.
"I've spent $50,000 remodeling the house and getting a handicapped-accessible van, and I'll use [the money] to pay off some of those bills," Willey said. "And then [it will be] gone.
"Oh. And my wife wants a pond in the yard. We'll get a pond," Willey said with a laugh.
Willey is the brother of standout golfer Thea Davis, but didn't begin playing the outdoor version of the game himself until 1997, when Thea began giving his son some lessons.
Willey, who spends most of his time in a motorized wheelchair, has become an avid player since then, trimming his handicap to a low of 19.9.
Willey attributed his title to a combination of shot-making and smart choices in the championship match.
"I couldn't have played it any better from a strategic standpoint or performance-wise," he said.
Willey said one of the keys to his championship win was the fact he never allowed Schuetz to get on any kind of a roll.
"The two holes he won I conceded to him," Willey said. "He never made
a putt to win a hole, so he never got that chance to get some confidence."