College World Series Duo Seek Different National Title
October 8, 2017 | ATLANTA, Ga.
By Stuart Hall
When a boy’s father plays Major League Baseball, as Dean Wilkins did for three years, the pull to follow in his footsteps is sometimes difficult to deny.
Ryan Wilkins, 26, of San Diego, Calif., felt that tug and did his best. A relief pitcher like his father, Wilkins helped North Carolina State University to an NCAA Division I College World Series appearance in 2013 and then made a combined seven appearances in two independent leagues that summer.
“Got hit by a line drive, fought a knee injury all year and pitched like crap,” said Wilkins, who effectively retired at season’s end and transitioned to being a junior underwriter for a start-up insurance company.
Many years earlier, while growing up in golf-rich Southern California, Wilkins was introduced to the gamef by his grandfather. During the summer, the two would play Tecolote Canyon Golf Course, a par-3 course.
“I kind of fell in love with golf back then, and I always joked that I should be playing golf instead of playing baseball,” he said.
That was not the case for Ryan Howison.
“Golf was never what I wanted to do growing up,” said Howison, 50, of Jupiter, Fla. “I took it up rather late in life, relatively speaking. I didn’t play high school golf, I didn’t play college golf. I was a baseball player.”
Howison was good enough at his original sport of choice to walk on at the University of North Carolina and become the starting third baseman by his senior season in 1989, when the Tar Heels also advanced to the College World Series.
While neither the Tar Heels – nor the Wolfpack 24 years later – hoisted the national title trophy, the journey is what mattered most.
Wilkins described the College World Series as being “the greatest experience ever.” Howison can empathize. Instead of playing in front of regular-season crowds ranging from a few hundred to a couple of thousand, the College World Series packed the house in Omaha, Neb.
“It was the first time I ever signed an autograph,” Howison said. “Omaha absolutely rolled out the red carpet for us. You just felt like you were a somebody outside your little nest.”
Despite being separated by nearly a quarter-century in age, Wilkins and Howison are now on new journeys that have reached the same plateau – this week’s 37th U.S. Mid-Amateur, which is being played at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course and stroke-play co-host Atlanta National Golf Club.
A couple of other players with strong baseball roots are also in the field. Mike Ignasiak, 51, of Saline, Mich., played with shortstop Barry Larkin and pitcher Jim Abbott at the University of Michigan and then pitched for four seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. Also, Joe Kerrigan Jr., 40, of Ardmore, Pa., the son of former Boston Red Sox manager Joe Kerrigan, was selected twice in the MLB Amateur Draft (1995 and 1999). He’s now a high school baseball coach at Radnor High School in the Philadelphia area.
Wilkins’ route to the Mid-Amateur began some 18 months ago after being convinced to take the game a bit more seriously by NFL Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk and Faulk’s friend, Trey McLeod, who now play regularly with Wilkins back home.
“If I broke 80, then it was like breaking par for me,” said Wilkins. “I would go out there and hit the ball 50 yards past them. And they’re like ‘What are you doing? Go out and learn how to play the game.’ So, I did.”
And here Wilkins is, having opened this championship with a 3-over-par 73 on Saturday at Capital City Club.
“Honestly, I thought I had a chance to qualify, because my game is there,” he said. “It’s a matter of who shows up with the putter. That’s the big thing for me right now. I can hit the ball with anybody. If I am hitting it straight, then I have a lot of good opportunities with wedges where others might be hitting 7- and 8-iron into the green.”
For Howison, a realistic understanding of his own baseball limitations and a couple of shoulder surgeries during his junior year at North Carolina put the kibosh on a future playing professional baseball.
“I couldn’t throw a baseball all summer [following the second surgery] and I was bored, so I decided I would play golf,” said Howison. “The overhand motion hurt, but the golf swing motion didn’t.”
Growing up in Florida, Howison played golf occasionally, and would average somewhere in the mid-80s. Near the end of the summer 1988, Howison shot even par for a round.
“I thought if I could take that many strokes off my game in three months, imagine what I could do in six months,” he said. “That was my mindset. So even before the end of my senior season I had decided I was going to give golf a go.”
With the blessing and financial backing of his grandfather, Howison pursued golf as a vocation. At the 1994 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, Howison finally earned his tour card, thus beginning a 14-year professional career that was spent between the PGA and Nationwide tours. In the late 1990s, Howison won three times on what was then called the Nike Tour (now Web.com Tour).
By 2008, Howison realized his growing limitations in a game starting to be dominated by longer hitters. He knew it was time to walk away and pursue another career avenue. Now a financial advisor, Howison was reinstated as an amateur in 2014.
This week, after countless attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open –twice losing in playoffs in sectional qualifying – Howison is finally competing in his first USGA championship.
“It’s incredibly exciting because it’s something you can check off your list,” said Howison, who opened stroke play with a 7-over 77 at Atlanta National. “I’ve had friends who have played in this event and they’ve said it’s one of the best I’ll ever play. And I wanted to experience that. I’ve had the opportunity to experience some other very nice tournaments, obviously, but I got up here and I’ve been very, very impressed.”
Wilkins admitted this U.S. Mid-Amateur experience rivals that of playing in the College World Series.
“It’s very different,” he said. “For me, this is probably a bigger accomplishment because I didn’t expect to get here this fast.”
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.