HONOLULU – Mark Wilson used to be a regular at Augusta National, just not on his terms.
He first went to the Masters with his father as a 14-year-old, following Fred Couples in a practice round. When he was in the area for mini-tour events, Wilson would try to get tickets from a friend. His last trip was 10 years ago, and he made a pledge not to return until he could drive down Magnolia Lane with the clubs in the trunk of his car.
“I get goose bumps thinking about it,” Wilson said.
He earned his first trip to the Masters by winning his first tournament of the year, surviving a 36-hole marathon Sunday in the Sony Open in which Wilson never made bogey and had rounds of 65-67 for a two-shot victory.
Rain that washed out the first round at Waialae turned the final day into a blur. Wilson was up before the sun rose over Waikiki Beach. He finished his third round in the morning with a one-shot lead, and had only six minutes – enough time to grab a chicken sandwich and a fresh box of golf balls from his locker – before he teed off for the next 18 holes.
About the only time he caught his breath was on the 17th green late in the afternoon. He had a one-shot lead, had not been able to reach the par-5 18th in two shots all week, and had a 12-foot par putt. That’s when he realized he had not made a bogey all day.
“I thought about that before I hit the putt,” Wilson said. “I haven’t made a bogey all day, so why start now? It entered my mind, but when I was over the putt, I didn’t think about it.”
Tim Clark had finished an hour earlier with a 64 and was one-shot behind, and was left waiting on the practice range for a playoff that didn’t happen.
Steve Marino made a late charge with back-to-back birdies to get within two shots, then nearly pulled off an improbable eagle. His drive splashed out of a bunker and onto a hill, so Marino had to take his stance with his feet in the sand and try to hit a fairway metal from 234 yards away with the ball about chest-high on the hill. It landed on the front of the green, rolled 40 feet away and his putt missed by inches. He had to settle for a 68.
Wilson rolled in a 4-foot birdie on the final hole that didn’t matter except for the margin. He finished at 16-under 264. Sweeter still was his wife, Amy, hugging him on the 18th green. In his two previous PGA Tour victories, she had gone home to Chicago for the week.
“It was neat to see her run onto the green,” Wilson said.
And then there’s the matter of that little invitational down in Augusta, Ga., the first full week of April.
Wilson, who didn’t make it to the PGA Tour until 2003 when he was 28, has been a victim of the wrong time or the wrong place. His first win was in 2007 at the Honda Classic. It was during the Masters a month later when Augusta National said it was changing its criteria to invite most PGA Tour winners.
“Believe me, I looked at the fine print on that one,” Wilson said. “I thought it was a calendar year when they first announced it, and I was really excited. But no, it was from Masters-to-Masters, so I didn’t get in.”
Two years later, he won the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico, an opposite-field event held the same week as the Match Play Championship that gets the top 64 players in the world.
“When I won Mayakoba, all my friends thought I was in,” Wilson said. “But opposite events don’t get you in. Everyone keeps asking, ‘How can you get in? How can you get in?’ And I’m thrilled to put that on the schedule now.”
How to get to Augusta?
The ticket for Wilson was to finish off his first round with four straight birdies. It was to take advantage of big breaks, like nearly hitting a tee shot into a canal on the par-5 ninth hole, having just enough room to punch back into the fairway and hitting an approach from 198 yards to within 6 feet to turn bogey into birdie. And then it took eight birdies and no bogeys over 36 holes in one day.
“That’s really what I did,” Wilson said. “I putted well and I took advantage of good breaks.”
While the trip to the Masters brings great joy, winning so early in the year brought him some measure of relief. Wilson is in the final year of his exemption from winning in Mexico, but he played poorly last year with only two top 10s.
He was aware that if he didn’t do better this year, he might lose his card.
“I didn’t want to put myself in that position,” Wilson said. “So it’s neat to get off to this great start.”
He now has three victories in the last five seasons, and while he wants to savor this win, he hopes to take his game up a notch. Wilson has played only three majors, and he hasn’t been to the U.S. Open since 1998 at Olympic Club.
The next stop is Augusta.
“I’m anxious to play,” he said. “Maybe a little scared about the length, from what I’ve heard. Part of me feels like I don’t belong, so I’m going to have to get over that hurdle and be ready to play. It’s going to be a new experience. I’ve never made the cut in a major. I feel like that’s the next step for me. I always think that the next step is playing well in majors, and the next step after that is being part of the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams.
“I feel like I’m ready to make that step, and this is a good start to it.”