US PGA Tour player Tim Wilkinson will venture home for the first time in more than a decade to play in the ISPS Handa New Zealand Open in Queenstown in March.
He will be joined by fellow US-based professional Steven Alker as the first players to confirm their entries, on the same day that tickets have gone on sale for the 99th ISPS Handa New Zealand Open at Millbrook Resort and The Hills (1-4 March 2018).
The left-handed Wilkinson has confirmed he will also return to his hometown of Palmerston North to play in the New Zealand PGA Championship (22-25 February) at Manawatu Golf Club, where Wilkinson learned the game.
While Wilkinson has been unable to sidestep his US schedules for 10 years, Alker has been a regular starter at the New Zealand Open, especially since its move to Queenstown, finishing sixth in 2016.
Both players will ply their trade on the Web.Com Tour in 2018, after missing PGA Tour status in their final qualifying opportunities.
“I am excited to be able to play in New Zealand. For around 10 years of my golfing prime I’ve not been able to because of my schedule,” said Wilkinson.
The Open has clashed with the Florida swing of the PGA Tour, with all the tournaments within close driving distance of his home. A strong early-season start has been mandatory for his survival on the major golf tour in the world.
Wilkinson, 39, who has won nearly NZ$7 million in his career, is excited by the ISPS Handa New Zealand Open format, with paying amateurs included alongside professionals.
“I play quite well in this format and I enjoy getting to know people from different walks of life. You just have to chill out and enjoy a more relaxed approach,” said Wilkinson, who has enjoyed three top-10 finishes in the AT&T Championship at Pebble Beach, on which the Queenstown event is based.
Wilkinson, who will play in Queenstown for the first time, is looking at opportunities that playing in New Zealand might present, as he chases more starts on the PGA Tour of Australasia and beyond.
“Obviously, I am disappointed not to be playing the PGA Tour in 2018 but I still feel some of my best golf is ahead of me. If I can get into tournaments in Australia as well it may open some doors in other events or to play a different tour. I am definitely more open to it.”
He is also excited about heading back to Palmerston North to a course where he learned the game, and a club that has also produced PGA Tour winners Grant Waite and Craig Perks. The trio have maintained friendships in the US.
“I have won quality amateur tournaments there and it would be nice if I can repeat the scores I shot back then.
“It is amazing for such a small town and a small golf club to produce three players on the PGA Tour, which is something you don’t see in the US.
“The year that Craig won the Players Championship, he came home and we played a lot of golf together. We see each other in his commentary roles for television.
“And I have known Grant for a long time. We first met when I was 12 and did some chipping practice together. I talk to him often and know his sons well.”
On the other hand, Alker, 47, has a real affinity with the Queenstown courses, having spent time there in his early days with his coach John Griffin.
“I pencil Queenstown in for the New Zealand Open if I can. It is a bit of a second home for me and I enjoy the format. It is more laidback and for some reason I play well in them, and get the chance to enjoy the walk a bit more.
“The location, of course, is incredible and both John Hart and Michael Glading have done their homework well and done a heck of a job.”
Alker said while his year was inconsistent, he did not take advantage of his opportunities when he hit the ball well.
“It was an up and down year. When I played well in the summer I made a lot of cuts but could not get inside the top 30.”
“That said, I think there were more positives than negatives and if I stay fit and stay positive then anything can happen, including winning the New Zealand Open. I’m not coming home to have a hit, I want to compete and win it.”
Alker is also eyeing the potential of the Champions Tour in three years time, and would like to continue playing both in the US and in Europe, with his wife from England.
“It’s a realistic option if I stay healthy and stay hungry. I am looking forward to the second chance and if I get the right course and get my ducks in a row, there is enough in me to get a win wherever I play.”
Tickets for the ISPS Handa New Zealand Open go on sale from Wednesday 22 November through www.nzopen.co.nz