0

Golfer takes different route to Masters

JACKSON, Miss. - Back when Steve Wilson was halfheartedly trying to make the PGA Tour, he often wondered what it would be like to play at the Masters even though he had no real expectation of ever making it.

He's finally going to get the chance to find out after earning a trip to golf's most prestigious tournament in a way he didn't envision in even his wildest fantasies.

'Plans don't always work out the way you expect them to,' Wilson said.

Four years after notifying the USGA he was giving up his pro status, the 39-year-old gas station owner from Ocean Springs, Miss., will be teeing off on April 9 with Tiger, Phil and the gang among the azaleas at Augusta National.

Call it the cart path less traveled.

Wilson earned the trip by winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Milwaukee Country Club in a rout last September. He never trailed in his final three matches, took a four-hole lead to start the championship match and one-putted 14 times over 32 holes.

For winning, he gets automatic entry into the Masters, exemptions for several amateur tournaments and will skip a round of U.S. Open qualifying.

His goals at Augusta are simple: First make the cut, then aim for the top 16. That would get him another year in the tournament. He also intends later this year to make a run at the U.S. Open and likely will play in the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and the Mid-Am, a tournament for amateurs over 25 to which he now has a 10-year exemption.

He tried off and on for 10 years to make a pro career work. He played a few Nike Tour events, but never went to qualifying school and just sort of gave up when life got in the way. There was a son, Gavan, to raise and a business to run.

'I own a gas station down here and I had to work quite a bit,' Wilson said. 'I was a professional but I tell my wife I was never a wholehearted professional.'

In a way, his former career probably went the way it should have. Truth is, he says, he wasn't much of a golfer as a young adult. He played at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, then transferred to Southern Miss where he was a contemporary of occasional playing partner Brett Favre.

'Slow learner, dumb, late bloomer,' Wilson said when asked why his game took so long to develop.

But the older he got, the better he played. He won the Mississippi state amateur title in 2007 and has won seven pro-ams and three amateur championships on the Gulf Coast. His buddies have been amazed by his transformation from a guy with a jittery putter to one now considering taking another crack at playing professionally.

'He is definitely the best player to come from down here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the last 50 years,' said Tommy Snell, the golf coach at Gulf Coast CC who has known Wilson since he was a junior player.

Snell accompanied Wilson to Augusta National on Sunday for a practice round - another great perk for winning the Mid-Am - and was tickled by the progress his friend has made.

'He's a very, very accomplished golfer, just not nationally known,' Snell said. 'So this is bizarre for everybody. When I went up there on Sunday and walked around the course with him, I was thinking, 'This is a guy we play with for 5 or 10 bucks a stroke.'

Heath Slocum, a PGA player and former Mississippian who got his start on the mini-tours, remembers Wilson from his days chasing a spot on the tour.

'I played quite a bit of golf with him,' said Slocum, who finished 33rd at Augusta last year in his first appearance. 'I was really happy to see what he did last year. He's a good golfer, obviously. You have to be to get to Augusta. It's going to be exciting. He's going to have a great time. Obviously, it's a pretty demanding golf course.'

Wilson has learned that firsthand. He has taken advantage of the chance to practice at Augusta, playing 15 rounds in six visits since December. He's been awed by the kindness of the club's staff, and taken the chance to load up on shirts, windbreakers and visors with its logo.

His worst round on the par-72 course was an 81 and his best was a 73 he shot last weekend. He figures if he can repeat a similar score on the first two days of competition he'll make the cut at the usually stingy Augusta National.

The trips have brought back memories from his youth when he'd tape the tournament and watch it repeatedly.

'It's incredible,' Wilson said. 'It's one of the few things that's as good as you build it up in your mind. The tradition and everywhere you go out there you can remember a shot that somebody's hit.

'I would like to be there everyday for the rest of my life if I could.'

He says that even though the course is so difficult it has entered his dreams.

'They're all the same,' Wilson said. 'The hole is a real tall glass tube and I'm on the ground. And I say, 'How can I possibly make that.' '

The trips have helped reinvigorate his wish to become a professional, though he won't put much more thought into it until he sees how he does this spring and summer. On their 450-mile drive north last weekend, Wilson and Snell listened to the audiobook version of John Feinstein's 'Tales from Q School.'

It's all very tempting, and he'd hate to think 20 years down the road that he might have missed an opportunity.

'After what my golf career has produced, yeah,' Wilson said. 'There's so much money in golf now, if you've got any kind of a crack to get through, you've got to take it.'

Getting there is expensive, though. Wilson figures it will cost him more than $15,000 by the time he's done. Friends held a fundraiser to help defray the cost of his trip, but he ended up donating the nearly $3,000 raised to a junior golfing program after some wags started to make fun of him.

'I was going to Disney World a few weeks ago and all my friends said, 'Oh, God, when are you going to hold a fundraiser for that,' Wilson said with a laugh.