He has traded his Screen Actors Guild card for a Nike Tour card,
but that doesn't mean Vic Wilk's days as a thespian are over. This
much was obvious to anyone who watched Wilk's bravura performance
during the pro-am that preceded last week's Nike San Jose Open at
the Almaden Golf and Country Club. Playing with a quartet of
hackers, Wilk was brilliant, praising each of them extravagantly
for the most prosaic shots and masterfully implying, after their
worm-burners, duck hooks and homely putts, that they weren't bad
golfers, just unlucky.
When a computer-chip salesman uncorked a monstrous, rainbow slice
on the 12th hole, Wilk recognized his cue. ``With that natural
fade of yours,'' he said, ``this is a tough hole for you.'' When
another exec yanked his tee shot 40 yards to the left of a
130-yard par-3, Wilk broke the embarrassed silence by proclaiming,
``Your distance was perfect!'' As Wilk kept up this spirit-
raising patter for 18 holes, you couldn't help thinking, Now
From Sonja Henie and Johnny Weismuller to O.J. Simpson and
Shaquille O'Neal, plenty of athletes have moved into acting. Wilk
has taken that path in reverse. He is the only professional actor
we can think of who became a pro athlete. So unsubstantial were
his roles that if you can remember any of them, you might consider
seeking professional help. He was the elfin boy in the pointy
green hat who declared, after a taste of Peter Pan peanut butter,
``Super peanutty!'' (``I caught so much grief in school for
dressing up like Peter Pan,'' he recalls.) After making an
entrance on a skateboard in another ad, he picked up a Stri-Dex
medicated pad, ran it over his face, then held the dirty pad up
for the camera. Says Wilk, ``They told me not to wash my face for
three days before the shoot.''
The commercials helped pay for golf lessons and defray travel
expenses. Wilk had a full schedule of tournaments during the
summers because his parents had lofty ambitions on his behalf and,
it turned out, at his expense. At 2 1/2 Wilk picked up a wedge
belonging to his stepfather, Allen Tonkins, and put a golf ball
through a garage window 15 yards away.
``I said, `This kid's a golfer,' '' recalls Tonkins. ``I tried to
get him to swing right, but he was so lefthanded, I just left it
alone.'' Last year Wilk became the first lefty in the Nike Tour's
five-year history to win a tournament. He is known for having one
of the sweetest, technically flawless swings on the tour. ``It's
because we started him so early,'' says Wilk's mother, Julie, who
divorced Tonkins in the early '80s. ``He was barely out of
When Wilk was five, Tonkins removed the backseat from the family's
Cadillac and put a mattress down ``so I could sleep and play,''
says Wilk. Two of the next three summers the family drove from its
home in California's San Fernando Valley to Florida for the
National Pee Wee championships, which Wilk won when he was seven.
He played in as many as 20 tournaments per summer, and he won
three junior world championships, twice in the 10-and-under and
once in the 11-12 age divisions.
But golf didn't occupy all his time. About the same time young Vic
busted that garage window with a golf shot, his mother took him to
a tennis court and had him hit balls. A talent agent noticed him,
and suddenly the toddler had a career in acting. By the time he
was 17, Wilk had appeared in dozens of commercials, pitching such
products as Mountain Dew, Snickers bars and Jell- O. In the
twilight of his acting career he had a few bit parts in the
Sounds like a busy childhood. ``It was,'' says the 34-year-old
Wilk, a trace of bitterness creeping into his voice. ``Too busy. I
never had time to be a kid.''
The constant cattle calls and early curfews and groundings for not
playing well began to chafe on Wilk, who grew into an increasingly
angry adolescent. Mount Wilk erupted during his senior year of
high school. A review of his school records revealed something his
mother had never told him: Tonkins was not his biological father.
Wilk had always gone by his mother's maiden name -- she'd told
him it was to facilitate his acting career. He angrily accused his
parents of having lied to him all his life. His grades, always
excellent, went south, cooling the interest of college coaches.
It was around then, recalls Julie, that ``Vic stopped showing up
for auditions. His agent said goodbye.'' So much for his acting
His athletic discipline also suffered. ``I dropped golf for a
while,'' says Wilk. ``When I came back, it was on my terms.''
Wilk got a scholarship from nearby Cal State-Northridge, where he
was a four-time NCAA Division II All-America, winning the national
championship in 1982, his senior year. That summer Wilk made the
cut for the final stage of the PGA's qualifying school in Ponte
Vedra, Fla. Julie arranged for Ernie Velasquez, Vic's biological
father, who lived in nearby Jacksonville, to pick up Vic at the
airport. It was their first meeting. Velasquez spent the week
following his son around the course.
``It was great to finally meet him,'' says Wilk. ``I mean, he was
my father. But this was the finals of the most important
tournament of my life. Looking back on it, I think meeting him
that particular week was a bit of a distraction.''
Wilk missed making the PGA Tour by one stroke. Twelve years and 10
trips to Q school later he has yet to make the Tour, despite
reaching the final stage seven times. Says his mother, ``He always
misses by one stinking stroke.''
Missing the cut at the Q school finals in '82 began a decade of
serial misfortune that would test Wilk's love of the game but, in
the end, reward him with the love of his life. During the practice
round of a tournament in Baltimore the next summer, Wilk tore
ligaments in his right thumb when he swung his club and hit a
piece of buried shale. He showed up on the 1st tee the next day
with ice taped to his grossly swollen hand. He could barely hold
his driver. Wilk made the cut, but he was able to play in only a
couple more tournaments the rest of the summer.
The following spring he was invited to be the head pro at a new
course in Taylorsville, Ky. It turned out that he was allergic to
bluegrass -- a problem for a golf pro in the Bluegrass State.
While out on the course one day he sneezed with such ferocity that
a rib tore loose from his sternum. The injury knocked him out of
the game for 2-1/2 years.
In the summer of '87 Wilk launched what he refers to as ``my
minicareer'' on the Canadian Tour. For three straight summers he
migrated north, driving to cities such as Windsor, Saskatoon,
Regina and Vancouver. He earned enough money each summer to pay
for PGA qualifying school in the fall. He passed his winters in
Southern California doing a variety of odd jobs: waiting tables,
driving a UPS truck, giving golf lessons. At the Sherwood Country
Club north of Los Angeles, he caddied and detailed cars for
luminaries such as Simpson (``Nice guy,'' says Wilk, ``but his
golf swing is a train wreck'').
In 1990 Wilk's car was rear-ended as he was driving on a highway
outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta, an outpost about six hours
north of Edmonton. Two vertebrae in his back were crushed. The
accident ended his season, but Wilk never considered quitting the
game. ``As a child actor you deal with rejection constantly,'' he
says. ``I think that toughened me.'' Such is Wilk's mental
toughness, says his coach and friend, Pasadena golf pro Jim Empey,
that ``even during the most discouraging times he believed he
could play this game. Without that confidence he would have quit a
long time ago.''
A year after that wreck Wilk made a triumphant return to the scene
of the accident, winning the Fort McMurray Rotary Classic. A year
later, at a tournament in Lethbridge, Alberta, he met a
20-year-old New Zealander named Victoria Hill, who was working as
a nanny in Canada. They were married in Las Vegas in December
1993. ``The wedding cost $200,'' says Wilk. ``We were married in
the same chapel as Joan Collins. We don't know which marriage it
was for her.''
The truth is, Victoria has been a terrific influence on Vic, as
well as a competent and inexpensive -- if, at times, overly
demonstrative -- caddie for him. It is not unusual for her to
crack Vic with a towel as they stride up the fairway. She
celebrates his birdie putts by thrusting a fist in the air and
Vic qualified for the 1994 Nike Tour in late '93, but his resolve
wavered when backing he had been promised fell through. At the
last minute Cleveland Golf agreed to sponsor him. The Wilks had
$2,500 in the bank, but Vic doubted they could make it through the
Victoria had no such reservations. ``She just looked at me and
said, `C'mon, let's have some guts. It doesn't matter to me if you
have a sponsor or not -- let's go.' '' The Wilks lashed most of
their possessions onto the roof of their Suzuki Samurai and hit
the road. They kept expenses down by eating at Burger King and
staying in private homes.
During a practice round before the Knoxville Open in May, Vic hit
a bad shot and, as he says, ``started punishing myself.'' Ever
since childhood he has reacted to bad shots by slipping on the old
hair shirt. When she saw it happening this time, Victoria unloaded
on him. ``How are you ever going to be successful with your
He moped through the rest of the round but began thinking, Here I
am, married to a great person, playing on the Nike Tour. How can I
have this attitude when I'm so darned lucky? After his round he
stopped at a bookstore and bought a Bible.
That night he opened it to the Book of Job. ``Satan took his
wealth, his family, his friends, but Job never cursed the Lord,''
says Wilk. ``He kept believing and got his wealth back, tenfold.''
The Wilks were staying at the home of Richard Goff, a former elder
in a Knoxville church. At dinner on Saturday, Wilk mentioned that
he would like to be baptized. Goff took him to his church, and a
minister performed the sacrament, dunking Wilk in a small
baptismal pool. The next day Wilk shot a 66 to win his first
tournament on the Nike Tour. You could say it was a timely
victory: Vic and Victoria were down to their last $700. In the
picture that ran in the next day's Knoxville News-Sentinel,
Victoria is clutching the oversized $36,000 check the way one
might cling to a life preserver on high seas.
For the year, Wilk won $68,145, enough for a down payment on a new
house just outside Las Vegas. Last week Budget Rent A Car came
through with a sponsorship deal. It provides use of a car for a
year, so Vic and Victoria can give their tired, 1986 Samurai a
On a tour of up-and-comers and retreads, Wilk is neither -- he's a
34-year-old never-was. But these days he has an attitude that
matches his swing. Says Wilk, ``I've gotten all my bad luck out of
my system. Remember, Ben Hogan didn't start playing his best golf
until he was 36.''
He carded an un-Hoganlike 77 in his first round in San Jose. His
second-round 69, which included an eagle on the first hole, was
not enough; he missed the cut by a stroke.
The bad news came in the gloaming on Friday. A tournament employee
wielding a marker made a wavy red line above the cut score on the
big board behind the 1st tee.
``Looks like you got the squiggle, pal,'' said Bill Doctor, a Tour
caddie who is a friend of Wilk's.
Wilk wasn't exactly beating himself up over this. ``If you're
gonna miss the cut, this is the place to do it,'' he said.
Said Victoria, ``San Francisco. It's party time.''
Thinking no one was watching, Wilk leaned over and sneaked a
smooch from his wife. A few moments later he confided to a
reporter, ``I'm a lucky guy.''
He was not acting.