Paul Willey averages 282 yards a drive and puts his ball in the fairway 85% of the time. Willey also hits the green with 89% of his approach shots, needs only 23 putts a round, has a scoring average of 58.56, and he does it all from his home in Palmyra, Maine. The 37-year-old Willey is the world's best cyber golfer.
Last year, playing against 800 elite competitors using the computer program Links LS, Willey won 47 of the 71 tournaments he entered, including the Grand Slam. He has won 16 of 19 events this year, coming from six shots back during the final round to win the cyber version of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on the same day that Tiger Woods made his late charge at Pebble. "Paul's skill is so legendary that he beats other players before he ever hits a shot," says Mike Schuetze of Washington, D.C., another top player.
Willey is one of 32,000 cyber golfers who play in tournaments using Links LS, which debuted in 1996 and features 40 courses, most of them Tour venues. Willey has been ranked No. 1 since he started playing cyber golf, in 1996, a year after retiring from the Army because of multiple sclerosis. Although Willey has only about 60% use of his arms and hands, he has an amazing ability to produce the snap—the perfectly timed release of the mouse clicker that is the key to good cyber shots. Willey's low round is a 21-under 52 at Sea Island Golf Club in St. Simons Island, Ga. According to Schuetze, Willey also has uncanny course-management skills. "[He has] an intuitive feel for getting the ball around without getting into trouble," Schuetze says. "That's where he rises above everyone else."
As a boy, Willey caddied for his father. But even though the rest of his family played—his sister, Thea Davis, is a teaching pro—Willey never took up the game. After becoming an avid cyber golfer, Willey finally tried what Links players call IRL (in real life) golf in 1997. Today he carries a 20 handicap; plays with his wife, Lori-Ann, and their children, Joshua, 7, and Alanda, 14; and hits 200-yard drives, although the act of swinging often causes him to cry out in pain. "It's worth it," he says.
Willey gets just as much satisfaction out of a half-hour round of cyber golf, which he often plays in his lucky bathrobe. The best prize he has won is an autographed Arnold Palmer putter, for his victory in the '99 Masters. "It's my proudest possession," says Willey.
That may change. Beginning with last week's cyber Bay Hill Invitational, Microsoft, the producer of Links, kicked off a seven-tournament, 1,700-playertour. The top 64 finishers will qualify for a single-elimination match-play event, with the winner earning $100,000. Willey, who came in first last week, is definitely the favorite. The finals will be held in November in Hawaii, and although traveling is hard on Willey, he dearly wants to go, if for no other reason than to meet and play against Sergio Garcia, an inveterate cyber golfer who plans to attend.
Wonder how Garcia will react when Willey throws a 58 at him?