AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — She has spent a lifetime on the windward side of Oahu, paradise in the eyes of many.
Grace Wilson found her own slice of heaven Tuesday morning amid the brilliance of spring at Augusta National. Walking down a hill toward the sixth green, she stopped for a picture in front of pink and red azaleas, keeping her eyes fixed on the most beautiful sight of all.
There was her son, Dean Wilson, getting ready for his first Masters.
This was the same child she drove to Pali Golf Course with the only set of golf clubs in their house. She would use the even-numbered Spalding Elite irons, he would use the odd-numbered ones. She couldn’t afford to splurge on his own clubs until he showed he was serious.
“I always dreamed that someday Dean would get here,” she said. “But you shouldn’t set your expectations so high. Well, I didn’t. But I always felt like Dean did.”
Wilson, 37, earned his way with a victory last summer at the International that enabled him to finish No. 22 on the PGA Tour money list.
He is not the first player from Hawaii to compete in the Masters. He isn’t even the only one this year; he played a practice round Tuesday with Casey Watabu, the U.S. Amateur Public Links champion.
But few have come so far, notwithstanding that big water hazard separating Hawaii from the mainland.
Wilson isn’t even sure how he got hooked on the game. His mother taught physical education at Castle High School in Kaneohe and played golf enough to shoot the occasional round in the high 70s.
“He got started late,” Mrs. Wilson said. “He was 12 or 13, and golf wasn’t the most popular sport in Hawaii for kids. But one day, out of the clear blue sky, he said to me, ‘Mom, would you take me to the golf course?'”
So began an amazing journey — hired hand in a golf repair shop, the best junior in Hawaii, a walk-on at BYU, three years on the Japanese tour and fame for the longest time on the PGA Tour as the guy who played with Annika Sorenstam.
Turns out Wilson was the perfect guy for that historic occasion at Colonial.
“He worked so hard on his game,” Mrs. Wilson said. “He didn’t really start to play a lot until right before high school, but he made the high school team. There were only five players on the team, and three of them were girls.”
He was determined, sure, and that was fueled by the clubs in his bag.
As a teenager, Wilson took a job at A-1 Golfworx, a repair shop at Bay View Driving Range. He had learned to shaft and grip clubs, and found enough clubs in the lost-and-found bin to finally have his own set.
“The shafts cost $4 and the grips were 69 cents,” Wilson said. “I made a full set, but every single head was different – Spalding, Wilson, Top-Flite, all different lofts. But that taught me how equipment worked. And it had a big impact on my mental development. Guys I would play against would look at my clubs and laugh. That made me feel like, ‘I’m going to kick your butt with these clubs.'”
And he did.
But it wasn’t enough to get noticed, not on an island in the middle of the Pacific. The best juniors go to Torrey Pines in San Diego for the Junior World Championship, but Wilson went only one year because his family couldn’t afford such a big trip.
“I was so ignorant about tournament golf,” Mrs. Wilson said. “I just turned him loose in the junior golf programs. I took him to the golf course, but that was it. I didn’t know anything about national tournaments. And financially, we couldn’t afford it.”
The one year he went to Torrey Pines, the junior golf program paid for it.
Wilson was the best junior in Hawaii, but the only scholarship offer came from BYU-Hawaii. The golf program ended after his first year.
He went to the main BYU campus in Utah as a walk-on, where he was roommates with a Canadian kid named Mike Weir. They remain best friends, and played a practice round Tuesday with Watabu in tow.
“He was a hard worker,” Weir said. “When I was in college, I didn’t really work on my golf swing. He was really the first guy on our team working on his swing.”
Wilson didn’t always make the traveling squad because priority was given to the scholarship players. There were times when he complained, and he got the same answer from coach Karl Tucker. It’s a line they still laugh about to this day.
“He told me, ‘For all I care, you can paddle your canoe back to wherever you came from,'” Wilson said.
He paddled all over the world, from the mini-tours in his 20s, to Japan for three years where he was rookie of the year in 2000, and a three-time winner the following season. He finally made it to the PGA Tour in 2003, and rookie status is what put him in the same group with Sorenstam at the Colonial.
It has been a grind to keep his card at times, but his playoff victory over Tom Lehman at the International earned him a two-year exemption, and ultimately a trip to the Masters.
Mrs. Wilson tries to go to three tournaments a year, but she never expected a trip the first full week of April, to a major that her son used to tape on television and watch over and over.
“One year that (Nick) Faldo won, Dean took his picture from a magazine, cut off his head and put his picture on there,” she said. “I wish I still had that picture.”
This was better. This was real.
And as she walked up fairways she never realized were so steep, she remembered where it began.
“Mom, would you take me to the golf course?”