Palm Harbor, Fla. — Life is pretty good on the PGA Tour. Courtesy cars, free clubhouse buffets fit for an emperor, money for wearing a logoed hat or shirt, and maybe your own private jet if you’re extremely good at your job. Which, by the way, is hitting balls with sticks.
Still, it’s not a perfect world. Mark Wilson, wearing a kelly green shirt, came out of the Tour’s scoring trailer by the clubhouse after his round of 73 left him at 1 over par for the Valspar Championship, just inside the weekend cut line. After a few steps, he turned and went back into the trailer to tell fellow competitor Kenny Perry a weird thing he’d noticed.
Next week’s Tour stop is just up the road in Orlando. Wilson isn’t in the field — he’s 13th on the alternate list. (That can’t be good on Friday the 13th, can it? “Maybe it means some guys will start dropping out,” Wilson joked later.) Perry wasn’t in the field, either, and he’s a 2005 winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, so Wilson went back to remind Perry.
“I figured he just forgot to commit,” said Wilson. “Kenny said, Hell, yeah, I committed.”
Oops. The PGA Tour has a lot of rules and regulations about who gets in what. Perry thought he was automatically in at Bay Hill as a past champion. A few regulations have been tweaked over the years so here’s how it stands: Bay Hill winners before 2000 are still exempt, and so are the last five champions. The guys who won from 2000 through 2009, like Perry, are inexplicably S.O.L. — Suddenly Outta Luck, if you get the drift.
“Can you believe that?” Perry asked his entourage as he left the scoring trailer. His entourage was Freddie Saunders, his long-time caddie, and Sandy, his long-time wife. Sandy was already working her cell phone in hopes of getting some answers and just so you know, nobody gets answers quicker than Tour wives.
One other inconvenient truth was, the 54-year-old Perry had committed to a golf outing the Monday after Bay Hill in Vero Beach, Fla. So barring a small miracle, like a leftover sponsor’s exemption from Mr. Palmer, Perry will have to return to Florida for his outing. Tiger Woods isn’t playing now, maybe Perry could have his spot? It’s only Friday, there’s still time to smooth it out.
Meanwhile, it was a rather wild Friday at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course. Thursday’s first round was about as calm as Florida can be, then partway through Friday’s second round, that changed.
“There was barely a breath of wind the first four holes and it was so calm yesterday, it was weird because I haven’t played in any calm conditions lately in Florida,” Wilson said. “Then we step on the sixth tee and all of a sudden, it’s just pumping. It’s like somebody just switched it on. The course played completely different after that.”
The Copperhead isn’t the longest course on Tour but it’s not short. It’s a little narrow in places, and when the wind gets up, it gets challenging in a hurry.
“The course played as long as I’ve ever seen it play,” said Wilson, a Wisconsin native who’s won five times on Tour despite not being a big hitter. He’s 5 feet 8 inches and his hair is graying on the edges. It’s hard to believe he turned 40 last year.
Wilson needed a hybrid into the wind to reach the par-4 10th hole. The 13th is a 192-yard par 3 over water. “Normally, it’s a comfy 5-iron for me,” Wilson said. “Today I had to hit a good 3-iron. It was blowing.”
The 16th is a treacherous par 4 that curves to the right, along a lake. The drive has to cut off as much of the lake as the player dares but if he bails out at all, he’s in the rough and trees on the left. It’s easily the scariest hole on the course.
“That’s the hole that really got my attention,” he said.
Wilson, who had birdied the 11th hole, had to hit hybrid into the 16th green, a par-4 green in the wind.
“I’ve never hit that much club in there before,” he admitted. “That birdie was a huge bonus, it was playing deep. I hit a really good drive and I still had 215 yards in.”
Told he might win a skin for that birdie, Wilson laughed.
“There may be a few birdies there but I hit it to three feet,” he said. “I’ll probably win closest to the pin at least.”
Wilson didn’t expect to be playing on the weekend. After his round, he’d signed his cap and given it to a youngster. Usually that’s a sign that a player is going to miss the cut. Not so. The wind wreaked havoc on scoring. Wilson was tied for 63rd at one over par when he finished — the low 70 scores and ties advance to the weekend. Ninety minutes later, he’d moved up to a tie for 57th as the afternoon half of the field battled the breeze and the ever-more crusty greens.
Wilson said his game isn’t quite firing on all cylinders, but he just needs to bring his missed shots in a bit and hole a few more putts. Wilson will be playing on the weekend, just not the following week at Arnold Palmer’s tournament.
What, no exemption?
“I wrote for one the last couple of years, I finished third there two years ago, but I didn’t play my way in, it’s as simple as that,” Wilson said. “I got spots at Colonial and Memorial last year, I was very grateful for that.”
Think of all the Wisconsin natives visiting Orlando who would’ve come out to Bay Hill to follow him.
“To watch me?” Wilson said, laughing. “Yeah, at least half a dozen.”
Clearly, the tournament will miss out on $200 or $300 worth of ticket revenue that Wilson could have generated. Wilson laughed harder this time.
“You’re right,” he said, “I don’t know what he’s thinking.”
Actually, Wilson will be at Bay Hill for two days, he just won’t be playing. He’s on the PGA Tour’s policy board and has to attend some meetings.
“I thought that could be worth an exemption,” Wilson said, pausing for effect. “But it’s not.”
The Valspar-to-Bay Hill leg of the Tour is part of its imperfect nature. A locker room sign reminds tour players, “Cars CAN NOT be taken to Orlando.” Players have to turn their courtesy cars in before they leave town.
Said Wilson, “It’s sad they have to put that up. That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?”
So just how does a Tour player with luggage and clubs and maybe a wife and kids get to Orlando without a private jet.
“You just grab a rental car,” Wilson said. “You drop it off somewhere and grab your courtesy car.”
Not to be flippant, but do any of you Tour players still remember how to rent a car anymore?
“Oh, we do it all the time,” he said.
Then Wilson tried to look offended.
“Hey,” he added, “we know how to travel.”
Life is good on the PGA Tour. It’s just not perfect.