Oregonian sportswriter George Cowne once expressed insights into Rudie Wilhelm's productive golf career:
"Watching Rudie bang out one of his patented long drives to the center of the fairway or to see him place a well-struck iron next to the flag, one would scarcely believe that this Oregon champion had begun the game as a left-hander."
But Rudie, when he began playing golf at age 12, was indeed a southpaw. And like most champions of his era, Wilhelm started out as a caddie, in his case, at Waverley Country Club in Portland. Showing considerable early promise, the youngster was tutored by Waverley pro, Jack Moffatt. In those days, professionals believed golf champions could not play from the "wrong side." So Moffatt instructed the youngster to turn around and golf right-handed. Moffatt's advice soon paid dividends when Rudie won his first golf title, Portland's Caddie Championship, in 1902. Wilhelm's initial success was apparently insufficient motivation for him to continue. He gave up the game for the next 12 years, not returning to golf until 1914.
Wilhelm and Portland Golf Club
Meanwhile, a group of golfers was forming Portland Golf Club. Wilhelm would join Portland as a charter member, and was instrumental in its development over the years. In 1914 he garnered his first "big" tournament, the Oregon Amateur Championship, becoming the first non-Waverley member to win that event. Wilhelm later held dual memberships at Waverley and Portland, and played on the Davis Cup teams of both clubs.
In 1916 at Portland Golf Club, Wilhelm became the first amateur to win the Northwest Open, shooting 69 and 71 over the concluding two rounds. The field included 22 professionals as well as such fine amateurs as Dixie Fleager, Chandler Egan and Bon Stein. Wilhelm's success stemmed from a wonderful ability to control his wooden clubs. While others would play safe with irons to avoid out-of-bounds or hazards, Rudie showed no fear, using his trusty driver or brassie at every opportunity.
The 1917 PNGA Men's Amateur Championship was contested at Waverley Country Club, a course Wilhelm knew well. Rudie did not disappoint the local crowds, defeating Fleager in the final. Because of World War I, the PNGA did not award trophies in 1917, issuing medals instead. For the next four years, Wilhelm was Oregon's reigning Men's Amateur champion, a feat not since duplicated. (Frank Dolp was next with three consecutive titles.) Another accomplishment not since matched: Wilhelm finished either as a finalist or semifinalist in every Oregon Amateur he entered.
Rudie ventured onto the national golf scene and was moderately successful. In two U.S. Amateurs – at the Engineers Club in New York in 1920 and St. Louis Country Club in 1921 – he missed the round of 32 each time by a paltry two strokes.
Wilhelm's final great showing in the PNGA Men's Amateur Championship came at Victoria's Royal Colwood Golf & Country Club in 1927, when he waged a classic duel with fellow Oregonian, Frank Dolp. After defeating Dolp 2 & 1, Rudie gave all the credit for the victory – as well as his entire set of clubs (which he'd used for most of the 1920's) – to his caddie.
Over his illustrious PNGA career, Wilhelm won more tournaments in a single year than any other player, a feat he accomplished in 1919, 1921, 1923 and 1924.
Wilhelm's advice to young golfers was simple: Keep your eye on the ball, and practice, practice, practice. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wilhelm's playing time was limited due to family commitments and a growing trucking company, Wilhelm Transfer, a business later managed by his son, Rudie Wilhelm Jr.