McCabe: Wilson embraces under-the-radar status

Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Commotion was all around Wednesday, the patrons just steps inside the PGA National Resort enjoying the festive atmosphere of the iBar, which is not an Apple product, though you can order yourself an apple martini.

Being just after 7 p.m., the lobby area was jam-packed, loud, and human traffic was bumper-to-bumper, so to speak. Understandable, then, that you could melt into such a scene without being noticed – unless you’re one of the world’s most successful golfers, right?

Wrong, because when you’re Mark Wilson you can casually cut through the crowd carrying some grocery bags and no one will notice. No entourage, no fuss, no crush of autograph-seekers. Just a few bags of snacks to bring to your hotel room and head for tranquility.

“Nice, easy night. I like my ‘me’ time,” Wilson said with a smile and as the commotion around him continued, the 37-year-old moved as he always does: Quietly.

In the fast-moving, glitzy and outrageously comfortable world of the PGA Tour, no one has scripted a story of success quite like Wilson or done it with the levels of humility to be admired. While so many peers and competitors came up as junior golf phenoms, amateur stars and collegiate heroes, Wilson’s modest resume was always supplemented by the intangible that means more than talent.

“Perfect commitment is more important than perfect technique,” Devon Brouse said. “Mark has the work ethic. He will outwork everyone.”

It was a December day years ago when Brouse, then the men’s golf coach at the University of North Carolina, couldn’t understand why Wilson was out on the putting green. “It was the day everyone was going home for Christmas break and I yelled out to Mark, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be going home?’ He just told me that he had 15 minutes before he had to go. That was Mark – always using his time better than anyone.”

The Tar Heels had more heralded players – players such as Lee McEntee, a former AJGA Player of the Year, or Rob Bradley, or Patrick Moore, or Tom Scherrer, or Ross Bain. The collegiate golf world in 1997 featured All-Americans whose star shined bigger and brighter – names such as Richard Coughlan, Brad Elder, Chris Hannell, Scott Johnson, Randy Leen and Albert Ochoa.

And yet . . . who is 88th on the PGA Tour’s career money list? Wilson, with $12,605,712.

And yet . . . since 2007 who are the only players to win more tournaments than Wilson’s five? Tiger Woods, with 17, Phil Mickelson (11), Steve Stricker (9) and Zach Johnson (5).

And yet . . . who was that putting together a level-par effort in Thursday’s opening round of the Honda Classic, his seventh tournament of his 10th PGA Tour season? Wilson.

Indeed, returning to the scene of his first PGA Tour win, Wilson continued to author his feel-good story because in a world where so many peripheral aspects overwhelm the senses and brighten the picture, the unheralded kid from Menomonee Falls, Wis., has remained true to his character and never forgotten that golf at this level is about one thing: What is the number that goes next to your name?

You want a more unassuming star? You needn’t look further than Wilson, who one week after making it to the semifinals of the WGC-Accenture Match Championship and six weeks removed from his Humana Challenge victory still could tee it up in virtual anonymity Thursday morning amid glitzier stars such as Rory McIlroy, Keegan Bradley, Davis Love III and Jim Furyk, all of whom finished minutes before him and attracted much more media buzz.

No, it doesn’t bother him.

“Overall, it’s good,” Wilson said, though he’s starting to get recognized a bit more. Still, there are times when he’ll be sitting in a restaurant during a PGA Tour tournament and someone will say to him, “Did you go over to the golf today?”

Wilson usually will smile and say he did, but they will usually have to keep pushing the questions to find out he’s a player.

And not just any player, either, but one who is in great position to earn a coveted spot on this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, too.

OK, so maybe it’s time to concede that Wilson knew what he was doing way back in 1997 when he turned pro. That is, if he’ll say it first. You did know what you were doing, Mark, didn’t you?

He laughed.

“I was clueless,” he said.

But press him further, ask him just what made him think he could make it in professional golf, and Wilson paints a picture of a young man’s determination.

“I had to try it,” he said. “It was one of those, ‘I’ve always dreamed about it’ things. I really wanted to chase that dream. Yeah, I was clueless, but at the same time, I look back at the journey.

“I would work on my technique all those years in my 20s and looking back I think it was the right thing. It has all paid off.”

Handsomely, and beyond his wildest dreams – and to think it began with a small group who believed in him and his talents. His father, an uncle, and some of his father’s business friends pooled together $50,000 back in 1997, and if Wilson is proud of what he’s accomplished, high on that list is that he repaid them “and never had to ask for more.”

The investment was paid off with Hooters Tour money, too.

“I made some decent money (there) – not Chad Campbell-like money on the Hooters Tour, but I did better than break even,” Wilson said.

Yet three years into a pro journey that Wilson had determined would be re-assessed after five years, he missed at another first-stage of Q-School test and became beleaguered. He appreciated the Hooters Tour, but not all the off time. “So, I went to Australia in 2000. That was a great experience,” he said. “I played that tour a couple of years, and it was a good fit because there weren’t the minitour (chances back then).”

Making it through Q-School in the fall of 2002 to earn his 2003 PGA Tour card, Wilson still was only in the formative stages of his journey. His first four years gathered him just six top 10s. His last five-plus seasons there have been 19, and if you’re still surprised by the remarkable progress, you probably don’t see what Brouse used to marvel at.

“What used to impress me about Mark is that he always had success at every level. He might not have won, but he was always there, always top 5,” said Brouse, who moved to coach Purdue in 1998. “He was the best time-manager I ever saw. He worked smarter than everyone and learned the rhythm to how to compete.”

Five years ago, everything Wilson had put into the game paid off with a victory at the Honda Classic, played that year for the first time over a demanding PGA National. Yet it was victory No. 2, the 2009 Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico, that Wilson points to as hugely important.

“I was maybe doubting myself a little bit (that year), but I found something in my tempo; it just clicked,” he said. “We played in a ton of wind that year. I think I hit a 6-iron 120 yards, but I handled the wind, and it was very satisfying. It freed me up for the rest of that year.”

And for the next few years, too.

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