Long Journey to Augusta National


Mark Wilson was practically at the Augusta National gates when he was turned away.


He could almost smell the dogwoods and azaleas with the Masters invitations being finalized in 2007 before the gates were closed on him.

Same thing with the invites coming together for last season’s Masters.

Coming as agonizingly close as Wilson has, it would have been torment to end a career without ever having played the year’s first major, but he’s made it. At 36, he’s finally arrived. And nobody should enjoy the ride more down Magnolia Lane next week to his first Masters.

“I’m thrilled,” Wilson said. “I get goosebumps thinking about it, to be honest with you.”

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson is the only two-time winner on the PGA Tour this season. (Getty Images)
Back in 2007, Wilson claimed his first PGA Tour victory at the Honda Classic, climbing to No. 7 on the PGA Tour’s money list with the breakthrough. All he had to do was hold his top-10 money list position for three more weeks to earn his first Masters’ invite.

A week before the invitation list closed, Wilson slipped to ninth. The following week, when the top-10 secured their Masters’ invites, he dropped to No. 12.

It was almost cruel when Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne announced at that year’s Masters that the championship was going to resume the practice of inviting PGA Tour winners.

Of course, the announcement came about a month late for Wilson.

Still, in ’09, Wilson won his second PGA Tour event, exciting friends and family who believed a long-awaited Masters’ invite was finally in the works. No, Wilson explained to them. He won the Mayakoba Classic, an opposite field event that gets no Masters consideration.

Wilson, however, played his way to the brink of the Masters anyway at the end of ’09 by nearly securing one of the invites that goes to the top 30 who make it to the season-ending Tour Championship. Alas, he fell one shot short of making it. One stinking shot.

You would think the frustration of coming that close would have made Wilson stay away from his TV set with the Masters being televised.

Wilson, though, reveled in one of life’s great moments on Masters’ Sunday a year ago, despite being shut out.

Wilson’s wife, Amy, went into labor with the couple’s second child during the final round.

At a Chicago area hospital near their home, waiting for the birth, with Amy early in contractions, she encouraged him to turn on the television to watch the Masters. Together, they watched Phil Mickelson’s triumph. They watched Amy Mickelson’s emotional return to the public eye as she recovered from breast cancer.

Cole Richard Wilson was born about a half hour after the Masters.

Cole will celebrate his first birthday the Monday after this year’s Masters. Cole will make the trip to Augusta National with the Wilson family.

It will mark just the fourth major championship Wilson will play. He missed the cuts at the 1998 U.S. Open, the 2007 and 2009 PGA Championships.

“Part of me feels like I don’t belong,” Wilson said of his Masters’ invite after he won the Sony Open in January to secure his spot at Augusta. “I’m going to have to get over that hurdle.”

Wilson seemed to do just that three weeks later by winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He arrives at Augusta National as more than a Masters’ invitee. He arrives as the PGA Tour’s only two-time winner this season, as its leading money winner and as the leader of the FedEx Cup points race.

As one of 20 players competing in their first Masters this year, Wilson’s challenge is steep, despite his good form this season.

In 74 Masters, throwing out the first year, Fuzzy Zoeller is the only player to win the championship in his first appearance. That was 32 years ago.

“There’s no other major where knowledge of how to play the golf course comes into play more,” Tiger Woods said. “That's why I think you see so many repeat winners there. You really have to know how to play that golf course.”

That’s why Wilson enlisted Augusta National veteran caddie Bud Jackson to help him and his longtime caddie, Chris Jones. Jackson walked with Wilson in a practice round at Augusta National last month during the week of the Transitions Championship. Jackson’s the younger brother of Carl Jackson, who will tote a bag for his 50th Masters this season. Bud’s been working at Augusta National for 45 years.

Wilson’s also lined up a practice round with Larry Mize, the 1987 Masters champ, and he’s hoping to play a practice round with Zach Johnson, the ’07 Masters champ.

Though Wilson is playing in his first Masters, this isn’t his first time inside the gates. He twice visited as a spectator. Still, his visit for two practice rounds were special this spring.

“It’s like a fantasy world,” Wilson said. “You leave the course and go back out on Washington Road, with the Waffle House, the traffic, the chaos, and you’re thinking, `Wait a minute. Did that just happen?’ It was cool.”

Wilson took his father, Les, to follow him during one of the practice rounds.

“My dad took about 150 photos,” Wilson said. “I kept having to tell him, `Come on, dad, let’s go.’ It was fun.”

Wilson took a couple photos himself down in Amen Corner.

“Coming over the hill at the 11th, after you hit your tee shot, seeing the 12th green, it’s like a photograph,” Wilson said. “You’ve seen it so many times, but it’s just picture perfect.”

Not as picture perfect as Wilson hopes it will be when he plays his way there for the first time in this year’s Masters.

Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell