THACKERVILLE, Okla. – When asked to assess the length of his burgeoning long drive career, Wes Patterson started counting and paused.
“Today’s the fifth, right?” he asked.
His is not a typical path to the Volvik World Long Drive Championship, instead a circuitous route that started with professional baseball and more recently detoured into professional golf. Patterson, 28, considers himself a “nomad” who apparently packs enough athletic ability to succeed at nearly any sport he touches.
That now includes long drive, as his improbable run that started in a satellite qualifier last week has now netted an unheralded player a spot in Tuesday’s Round of 16 at the Winstar World Casino and Resort.
The group of contenders still standing includes several household names: defending champ Joe Miller is still alive, as is two-time winner Tim Burke. But Patterson is holding his own against a stacked field of top-ranked participants despite the fact that he hasn’t played in enough events to even garner a ranking.
A month ago, he didn’t expect to be here. A week ago he considered withdrawing. But after toppling the world No. 1 – twice – he suddenly has a shot at the $125,000 top prize.
“It’s gone really fast. I kind of showed up on Friday and didn’t know what to expect,” Patterson said. “Didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was just trying to hit the ball hard and straight.”
Patterson doesn’t sport a bodybuilder’s frame, and his soft-spoken Southern drawl is a stark contrast to many of the outspoken personalities of the sport. But like many others, Patterson has a background in another discipline that he has parlayed into success on the grid.
A standout pitcher at the University of Tennessee-Martin, Patterson signed with the Atlanta Braves in 2011 as a free agent pending a physical. But he blew out his elbow in the last week of his senior season, tearing his UCL and effectively ending his MLB career before it started.
After Tommy John surgery, he bounced around independent leagues, tried coaching and ultimately spent a year pitching in Australia. But he went through unexpected visa issues and got deported – meaning he couldn’t return to Australia for three years even though his team had offered him a contract renewal.
“I basically had to retire right there,” he said.
Patterson quickly turned his attention to golf. While he played competitively growing up, he didn’t turn pro until March 2016 – and even that planned path was temporarily derailed by an ill-timed car accident. Earlier this summer, Patterson had expected to spend this week at Web.com Tour Pre-Qualifying with hopes of jump-starting a pro career in his backup sport.
But the 54-hole qualifier brought with it a $2,700 entry fee, a price tag that would only climb if he advanced. Patterson made an earnest assessment of both his game and bank account and decided to change course.
“I had enough money if I made it through the first couple stages, but I was just being honest with myself,” he said. “I haven’t been playing too well to be able to make that big of an investment.”
Patterson found himself back at the drawing board, but his instructor Brian Delaney saw potential off the tee. Just three weeks ago, Delaney shipped out a trio of extra-long drivers and told Patterson to check the mail.
“I’m not taking no for an answer,” Delaney told Patterson.
Patterson started pounding the ball, and he saw some favorable numbers. He decided to take a shot at the world championship, but even this week’s entry fee was partially funded by his mom (“Don’t tell my brothers,” he joked) and almost led to another 11th-hour exit.
“The last day of sign-up, I was thinking about withdrawing,” he said. “Because it was going to be $1,400 on my credit card bill, and that’s a lot of money.”
In another turn of events, Patterson had some late equipment issues. While he’s based in St. Louis he also trains part of the year in Houston, and his equipment became inaccessible after the flooding caused last week by Hurricane Harvey.
But thanks in part to encouragement from Delaney and his family – and some equipment assistance from long-drive peers like Ryan Riesbeck – Patterson stayed in the 61-man qualifier where 26 spots in the final, 96-man field were available.
He made it through that gauntlet and continued to advance, but as the lowest-ranked player remaining in the field he drew world No. 1 Maurice Allen in the double-elimination Round of 32. In the first match of the day Monday, he pulled off an improbable upset with a pair of 350-yard bombs.
In a win-or-go-home rematch later in the day, Patterson beat Allen again, knocking out one of the sport’s most recognizable faces with a 373-yard strike into the breeze.
“Wes is an awesome hitter. When you look at his numbers, the Trackman when it comes up (Tuesday) night, you’ll see that he’s hitting the ball and smoking it,” Allen said. “The balls he hit against me were just perfect balls. Perfect flight, perfect speed into the wind. Can’t argue with that at all.”
So now, the pitcher turned golfer turned long drive specialist has a spot in the Round of 16, where he’ll face off with Riesbeck, the man who spotted him a new driver head at the start of the event. At the very least, Patterson has turned a profit on his investment – a loss tonight will still earn him $3,500.
But a win under the lights means a spot in Wednesday’s finale, where he could potentially turn a sport that is largely identified by the success of a handful of top-tier players firmly on its head.
“You don’t know what to expect until you get here,” Patterson said. “I don’t really get too nervous, especially when I see the first one get in the grid. That kind of settles me down. But it’s been pretty much a whirlwind.”