Guess what? You can have a PGA Tour event without Tiger, Phil, Vijay and Ernie. The Honda Classic, which wrapped up with a four-man playoff on Monday morning, had a B-list field yet turned out to be the best tournament of the year.
An odd congregation of golfers gathered on the 10th tee of the Champion course at PGA National, on the wrong side of I-95 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., for the shootout. The four understudies were country boy Boo Weekley, chew in his lower lip firmly plugged in; Camilo Villegas, the stylish Colombian who looked delightfully out of place among the South Florida retirees; JosÃ© Coceres, the veteran Argentine who was muttering swing thoughts to himself in Spanish; and Mark Wilson, a tiny (5’7″, 145 pounds) guy who has been scraping the edges of the Tour for years, a short, crooked hitter who putts like a dream. Wilson, 32 and married with a first child on the way, had made a huge deposit in the karma bank last Friday; now, three days later, he was rewarded with the oversized winner’s check in the amount of $990,000.
Wilson is steeped in golf. (Not all Tour pros are, believe it or not.) He grew up playing a Donald Ross course, Oconomowoc Golf Club, in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where “you learned how to hit shots,” he says. He knows what Kenny Perry did at the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla, where Perry sat in the CBS booth being interviewed by Ken Venturi when he should have been preparing for a playoff, which he subsequently lost. Thus, when a Tour official asked Wilson if he’d do an NBC interview with sunset fast approaching last Saturday night, he said, “What I’d really like to do is practice.” And that’s what he did, concluding his brief session by hitting fairway bunker shots, something you almost never see anybody work on (except Vijay and Tiger).
Wilson also knows that some years ago, Tour pro Greg Chalmers called a two-shot penalty on himself when he heard his caddie give club advice to another player in the group. And then Wilson found himself standing on the 5th tee during the second round, playing with Larry Mize and, it so happened, Villegas. Wilson hit his shot on the 215-yard hole and then he heard his caddie, Chris Jones, say to Villegas’s caddie, “The 18 degree.” In other words, Jones’s man had hit his 18-degree hybrid, the modern two-iron, on the hole.
Jones simply blurted it out, unthinking. “I was getting a little too friendly, a little too comfortable,” Jones says. Wilson was hot for about two seconds. “I’ve told you to be careful about that,” he told his caddie, then called for a rules official, the former Tour player Brett Upper, who informed Wilson what he already knew: giving advice, whether you do it or your caddie does, costs you two shots. The par 3 Wilson made on the hole was now a 5. Villegas immediately asked, “Is there a penalty for me, too?” There was not. The penalty is for giving, not receiving. Golf has its own weird ways. Wilson immediately put caddie Jones at ease. “Don’t worry about it,” he told him. “Let’s move on. I’ve done a lot of things that have cost me shots, too.” Still, Jones spent the rest of the day “feeling as if I were going to puke”; his employer’s Friday 66 could’ve been a six-under 64.
You have to call the penalties. The whole system of tournament golf falls apart if you don’t have that. Most of the pros get it, and Wilson, we now know, is among them. He could have pretended that he hadn’t heard Jones, but the thought never crossed his mind. Wilson’s reward — and he doesn’t even think of it this way — came when he made an eight-foot putt for par on the 72nd hole to keep him at five under par and tied with Villegas and Coceres, who were already in.
At that point it was Boo’s tournament to win. He had a 39-incher on the final green for par and a one-shot victory. Everybody wanted Boo Weekley to make that putt and conclude the tournament in the silvery Florida dusk, with Jack Nicklaus on the scene and Johnny Miller describing it all for a national audience. The veteran pro Glen Day, standing on the edge of the 18th green, wanted Boo to make that putt. Boo’s caddie, his young son, the Honda guys in their blue blazers, Nicklaus and Miller — they all wanted Boo to make that putt. Hell, Coceres, Villegas and Wilson wanted Boo to make that putt. O.K., you can scratch those last three names off the list. The unspoken truth is that Boo’s missing from a yard would only serve them well, give them another crack at a nearly $1 million payday. But you get the idea.
Day was Boo’s most intense cheerleader. He played a central role in Boo’s excellent week. The 41-year-old Day and Weekley, 33, are self-described rednecks who became friends during many rounds together over the past half decade on the PGA (in flush times) and the Nationwide (in leaner ones) tours. Day owns a home near PGA National, and Boo bunked there last week. They spent their evenings grilling steaks, watching sports and dipping chew. Then they were paired together, by coincidence, during Saturday’s round. Boo’s comfort level in a PGA Tour event had never been higher, and he shot a 66 on a demanding, windswept Nicklaus course that might’ve been a 58 had Mark Wilson been putting for him.
When Weekley came off the 17th green saying, “That wind is going right across like this,” he raised his meaty, reddish left arm to indicate a northwest breeze, a total switch from the previous day. To play the PGA Tour, you need an aptitude for the outdoors. Boo knows wind. His golf is a work in progress, but it’s already very good. Putting is the main issue.
We’ve all done (with fewer clams on the line) the same thing that Boo Weekley did at 18 on Sunday. Nervous and clammy, he got too shy on the first one, the long one, then overcompensated by hammering the next one, the 39-incher to win. Boo’s miss was greeted by a sympathetic chorus of groans and a cry from Day above them: “Cain’t believe that!”
There was time for one playoff hole in Sunday’s gloaming, at which each of the four golfers made par, followed by quick sessions in the interview room. Describing his yard-and-change putt to win, Boo said, “I ain’t going to lie about it — I was shaking like a leaf.” His five-year-old, T.P., was sitting on his lap and Boo was stroking the back of the boy’s neck. How can you not root for such an honest guy? The man is proof that you can play golf at a high level without doing everything exactly the way Tiger Woods does it.
Sunday night was instructive, as Sunday nights often are on Tour. Villegas and Wilson, both graduates of the American college golf system, said they felt for Boo. That genteel attitude is a legacy of Bobby Jones, and some would say it’s one of the best things the game has going for it — along with the players’ devotion to the rules. “You have to feel for Boo,” Villegas said, “but it’s golf. Those things happen.” That’s out of the textbook. Jones’s code lives.
But the code is not universal, and golf is more interesting for it. The 43-year-old Coceres, whose English is far from fluent, who grew up poor in Argentina and has played the world, was asked if he saw Boo’s miss.
“Yes,” he said. “On TV.”
“What did you think?”
“Playoff!” the grizzled pro said, smiling.
You ever hear American golfers talking that way? No wonder the bookies favored the Europeans in last year’s Ryder Cup, and it’s why the Internationals will most likely be favored in the Presidents Cup this year. Coceres and Villegas could make that team come September.
When the playoff reconvened on Monday morning, Boo was the crowd favorite. But he made a bogey on number 10, as did Villegas, and only Coceres and Wilson moved on to the third playoff hole, the short par-3 17th. Both players hit nine-irons onto the green. Wilson stroked his in from about 10 feet, while Coceres’s putt hit the hole yet stayed out. The big check belonged to the little man. “It’s hard for me to spend money,” said the Midwesterner, who majored in math at North Carolina. “Maybe I’ll get a backyard putting green.” He better also spring for a tarp. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife, Amy. The couple is expecting their first child in the fall.
On the first Monday in March the new Honda Classic — better course, weaker-than-usual field, the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation now the main charitable beneficiary — had a deserving winner you could feel good about. And you can feel very good about Mark Wilson.
He has jet-black hair, intense blue eyes, accountant parents and a cerebral manner. Wilson has been through the torture chamber known as Q school every fall for the past 10 years, yet he still seems sane, and he proved on Friday that he’s not at all desperate. It’s a pleasure to see a golfer with his head on straight.
The Honda tournament has long been an event at which players take a step up the ladder. Wilson did that last week, and Villegas and Weekley did too, even though they weren’t lifting a giant key to the Honda of their choice on Monday morning. They spent the week trying to bury a reputation built mostly on appearances. When Weekley, who does not sport a Body by Jake physique, first got his Tour card for the 2002 season, he was mocked in some quarters for the nylon camouflage pants he wore on the course (he gets an allergic reaction on his right leg when he wears cotton) and for playing in sneakers (golf shoes, even with soft spikes, caused him foot pain). Now he wears polyester-blend pants — khaki-colored ones, most days — that look plenty ordinary, and he’s found cushiony sole inserts that allow him to wear regular golf shoes.
Villegas, meanwhile, was at the other end of the looks-and-attitude spectrum. Built like Sugar Ray Leonard in his 1980s prime and sporting a wardrobe out of Johnny Miller’s closet from his 1970s prime, he is one of the few players on Tour who can do the skin-tight thing in a color known as robin’s-egg blue. His look, plus his promising golf, has earned the 25-year-old TV time, magazine coverage and nice-sized galleries. But what he craves is a win, something he achieved often in college. “That’s why we play golf — to win,” he says. “Obviously some guys do it more often than others.” He has the drive and the work ethic to be an elite player. Whether he has the talent is still unknown.
Of course, it’s not always about talent. The least talented of the four men in the playoff won the tournament. But Wilson had karma going for him, which is nice. Nice for him, nice for his caddie, nice for us to watch. “I didn’t call the penalty on myself so I’d be rewarded with draining a bunch of putts on the weekend,” the winner said. “The rules are the rules, and if you break them, you call it on yourself. But the way it all worked out, that was something.”