SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.— This year golf was going to be all about the race to the No. 1 world ranking. Would Lee Westwood stay on top? Could Martin Kaymer pass him? Will Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods bounce back? What about Graeme McDowell and Steve Stricker? Who will it be?
One month into the 2011 season, there is only one two-time winner — and he is none of the above.
He’s Mark Wilson. And two wins in a month boost him to only 51st in the official world rankings. The beauty of golf is its unpredictability. Golf has two new stars this year — Wilson and Jhonattan (Jhonny) Vegas. Raise your hand if you saw that coming. (If you raised your hand, you’re a danged liar.)
It’s funny that the Waste Management Phoenix Open’s site, the TPC at Scottsdale, usually favors the long ball. That’s why players such as Phil Mickelson and J.B. Holmes have done so well here. Wilson and the player he beat in a two-hole playoff, Jason Dufner, are hardly long hitters. So that doesn’t make any sense, either.
Wilson’s success may be due to the marathon factor. When he won the Sony Open three weeks ago, he had to play 36 holes on the final day. He did it without a bogey. Here, it was a marathon type week due to frost delays on Thursday and Friday. Wilson wound up with a bizarre playing schedule. He played four holes Thursday, 28 on Friday, four more Saturday, just over 30 on Sunday, then the final six on Monday — plus two playoff holes.
When he left the course Sunday night after play was halted due to darkness, he had a two-shot lead and one big regret: “The saddest thing is I couldn’t watch the first half of the Super Bowl,” he said. Wilson grew up in Milwaukee. He’s a green-and-gold Green Bay Packer fan, a diehard, even though he now resides in suburban Chicago. On the weekend, he wore a pair of green and gold visors made special for him by his equipment sponsor, Ping.
So his Sunday night wasn’t a time to kick back and relax. By the time he got back to his hotel room, the Super Bowl was late into the third quarter. And he had to help his wife, Amy, with their two children, Lane and Cole, who is still a baby.
“I had to wash Lane’s face and put his jammies on, and I had to eat, too,” Mark said. “It’s chaos but I like the chaos. It’s a good distraction. But at that time, I at least wanted to watch the last 15 minutes of the game. The Packers in the Super Bowl doesn’t happen every year.
“After we played Candy Land, my son said, O.K., we can watch the last two minutes of the game together. So we watched the Packers’ last stand and I was happy they somehow pulled it off.”
The Packers won. Mark won in Candy Land — “It’s a total chance game,” he said.
And then he won the Monday finish at the TPC. He’s 36, and at 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds, he’s not one of the Tour’s big hitters, not like most of those guys battling at the top of the world rankings. He’s a normal guy with normal problems. On Monday morning, when he was getting ready to leave the locker room and warm up, he realized he had his car keys in his pocket. His caddie, Chris Jones, had driven him to the course. That meant his wife was stranded without keys and couldn’t get to the course. He had to ask Chris to run the keys back to the hotel.
“I thought, this is not what I needed right now,” Mark admitted. “My heart is beating a little faster. But once I get out there and hit shots, I’m not as nervous as before. I don’t know why I’m nervous watching the Packers. I don’t have any control over what they’re doing. But I get nervous watching them because I want them to win.”
Wilson is having a nice run because he’s figured out a few things about his game. He’s quit worrying about his swing and instead is focusing on getting the ball in the hole. Sounds obvious? A lot of players don’t do that. Wilson used to rush to the range and video his swing after a round. Now, he says, he’s given up worrying about making perfect swings. During practice rounds, he often drops a ball in the fairway from 100 yards and tries to get that up and down instead of playing out the approach shot he already hit.
“If I can get it up and down from inside 100 yards, it’s going to be hard for me to make bogeys,” he said.
Scoring is, indeed, the secret of golf. He’s also worked with sports psychologist Bob Rotella, and recently improved his green-reading skills after working with Greg Rose, who co-founded Titleist’s Performance Institute in Carlsbad, Calif. It’s no secret that Wilson now ranks among the Tour’s better clutch putters.
He demonstrated it in the playoff here. He two-putted for par from 70 feet on the first extra hole, sinking a five-footer on the second putt. On the second hole, Wilson had a straight-in eight-footer for the win and poured it in the center. You may recall when he had his breakthrough win at the 2007 Honda Classic, he did that with his putter, too. Wilson sank a 45-footer to save par at the 16th in the final round of regulation play, an eight-footer for par at 18, and a 30-footer to stay alive on the first playoff hole. He won with a 10-footer for birdie on the third extra hole. You could say he has a knack for doing things the hard way.
“I’d love to have a four-shot lead on the 18th hole one of these times,” Wilson said as he was on his way out of the TPC at Scottsdale. “But that’s not the way it works.”
Winning by any margin is good enough. You could ask the Packers.
Look for a lot more of Wilson in coming weeks. This second victory should clinch spots for him in the World Match Play Championship and the WGC event at Doral. Plus he’ll be playing in his first Masters this year. (When he won the Honda Classic in 2007, the Masters didn’t automatically give spots to all tournament winners.)
“I keep saying, I’ve got to take a week off somewhere but in the middle, there’s Mayakoba and Honda, two tournaments I’ve won,” he said. “I’m not ready to take off a tournament I’ve won. I see the snowstorm in Chicago and it’s like, why go back there? There’s no reason. So I plan to play through Bay Hill, take a week off, and get ready for the Masters. I’m just going to ride this train as long as I can.”
And if you’re keeping score at home this year, so far it’s Wilson 2, Tiger and Phil, 0. Sweet.