When Wil Gardner was first learning the game of golf, his father would drop him off at the 150-yard markers at Martinsville’s Lynwood or Forest Park courses and let him hit from there.
Only 7 or 8 years old, Gardner sometimes took 10 strokes to reach the green and finish the hole. Over time, that became eight strokes, and he kept improving from there.
But those days of getting a head start are long gone.
“Now we’re to the point where he’s beating me,” said Scott Gardner, Wil’s dad and coach at Magna Vista High School.
Wil eventually progressed so much that as an eighth-grader he finally beat his dad, in December 2016 at Pine Lakes Country Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“At first, I didn’t want him to beat me because of the competitive side,” Scott said. “But deep down, naturally, you want him to be better than you and overcome obstacles and pass you and be stronger and a better athlete than yourself, and he’s done that.”
Now a junior on the Warriors’ golf team, Wil — spelled with one “L” in homage to his mother Kristie’s maiden name of Wilson — is having a breakout season, with three medalist performances through the first six Piedmont District meets. He earned the first victory of his high school career by shooting 76 on Aug. 19 at Greens Folly Golf Course in South Boston, and he carded 81 10 days later to win at Tuscarora Country Club in Danville.
This week, he paced the field with a 2-over-par 74 at Oak Hills in Eden, N.C., a performance he said he owed to his tee shots.
Not only is he hitting his drives farther this year, but he’s also benefiting from a more pronounced understanding of where he wants the ball to go.
“All my clubs are going a lot longer, and I can shape the shots too,” he said. “I can tell where they’re going and what I need to work on most of the time.”
Scott believes that Wil has long had the mindset to master the sport, but he is now pairing his physical maturation with that mental readiness. Wil’s success this season has been the manifestation of that combination.
“He’s approaching 280- or 290-yard drives,” Scott Gardner said. “Now, he’s hitting a wedge into some of these greens, where when he was a freshman, he might have been hitting driver and 7-iron. Now, he’s more tactical. He’s almost like a surgeon: ‘I can cut these greens up, and I know where I want to be.’”
Part of that growth has been the development of a composed demeanor, which golf so often requires.
“After you have a blow-up hole or a bad hole, you just have to get focused,” Wil Gardner said. “When I was younger, I’d have a bad hole, and then I’d go to the next hole, and that would lead to a bad hole. Now, I’m just trying to let it go.”
Take Tuesday, for example. After a promising front nine, he notched a triple-bogey on the 10th hole. Instead of letting the misstep derail his whole round, he responded with six consecutive pars to keep himself in contention and eventually win by two strokes.
“He’s been groomed over the years to realize it’s more than one hole,” his dad said. “He’s mentally tough.”
Some lessons, especially in this sport, are learned the hard way.
For Wil, the moment he reflects to the most is his his freshman year, the regional tournament at Draper Valley Golf Club, where the final two holes undid the progress from the first 16.
“The last two holes, I blew them up and missed second team by a stroke or something,” he recalled. “I could have saved a couple strokes on those holes, but I did too much to get back into it and shoot a lower score. I could have prevented that.”
This season, though, finally feels like the year that he makes it to the state tournament, he said.
In fact, in the Gardner home, there is a small sign near the fireplace that bears the date and location of the state tournament — Oct. 14-15 in Williamsburg — with the words “Pack your bags” to serve as a reminder of his end goal.
If Wil Gardner thinks back to his younger self, playing with smaller clubs and starting at the 150-yard marker, contending for the state meet seemed so far off. Now, it’s more attainable than it ever has been.
“You want to dream about going to state,” he said, “but now it’s reality. State can actually happen in a couple weeks. I know I can win, I know I can shoot low. It’s just about if I go out and do it or not.”
Parker Cotton is a sports writer for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801 ext. 215.