PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – When Mark Wilson walks the fairways at PGA National, long-time Honda Classic fans stop and point.
He’s more than the first guy to win the tournament after it moved to the Champion Course in 2007. He’s the guy who won despite calling a two-shot penalty on himself after his caddie broke the Rules of Golf.
Wilson, 35, penalized himself after his caddie, Chris Jones, gave advice on club selection to a fellow competitor on the fifth tee in the second round. After Camilo Villegas asked his caddie what club he thought Wilson hit there, Jones chimed in.
“Oh, it’s an 18-degree hybrid,” Jones told them.
Wilson knew that response violated Rule 8-1 of the Rules of Golf, a rule that forbids a player or caddie from giving advice to anyone but each other, or a partner in match play. The rule falls into a gray area because the rules actually allow players to go up and look in a fellow competitor's bag to see what club's being used.
Wilson went on to beat Jose Coceres, Boo Weekley and Villegas in a playoff for his first PGA Tour title. He did it in dramatic fashion, making birdie at the difficult Bear Trap’s 17th hole. He won the Mayakoba Golf Classic last year for his second title and ended the season 32nd on the FedEx Cup money list, just missing out on a berth in the Tour Championship, which would have gotten him into his first Masters.
Before this week’s Honda Classic began, Wilson sat down for a Quick Round:
Honda Classic fans will always remember you for how you won, for the integrity you showed calling a penalty on yourself. How much are you still asked about it?
I’m amazed how much it lingers and people still talk about it. I truly believed if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have won the tournament. I was going through the motions that week. I just didn’t really have it. The penalty was something that just spurred me on. After that happened, I birdied six holes to put myself in position to even think about winning and I played great on Saturday and ended up prevailing in the playoff.
You didn’t fire your caddie, Chris Jones, for his transgression that day. In fact, you’re still together, right?
This is our fifth year together.
Chris probably thought he was finished as your caddie that day.
We all make mistakes, and it was a big one at the time. I was disappointed. It was a weird situation. He was giving the spec of the club. It wasn’t like he was saying, `Hey, it’s a 5-iron.’ He was saying, `It’s an 18 degree.’ I think in his head he didn’t realize that was wrong. We had a talk when he first started working for me, that this is something we don’t do. Maybe other caddies signal across the tee box to other caddies, but we don’t do that. You might give it to the TV guys, but you don’t give it to other players because that’s cheating. He was distraught, but he’s a positive force on my bag. He helps me a ton. We have good camaraderie, and he knows my game as well as I do.
The rule you penalized your caddie for breaking falls in a kind of gray area and might be one of the most violated rules on tour. Should the rule be changed?
When I think about someone breaking that rule, it’s just laziness. All you have to do is walk over to someone’s bag on the tee box and see which club is missing. If someone can’t do that, it’s just being lazy. I don’t look at the rule as needing to be changed. Overall, I wish caddies and other competitors would hold it in the same regard, because I don’t think everyone does. It’s a tough one in the sense that people who might break the rule would argue, `Hey, I’m just helping out a fellow brother out there. We’re all a family.’ Like they are being nice about it. But it’s against the rules.
Are there any other gray areas in the rules like that which get violated?
The only thing that comes to mind is where a ball last crossed the hazard. Sometimes, when you have a long carry over water, you’re not sure where it crossed. You’re supposed to know 100 percent. You’re supposed to know, `Yes, it crossed that little corner’ and you go up there and take your drop up there. Where you take your drop can save you a couple shots sometimes. That one is a gray area. It’s what you see. You use information you get from marshals but that’s not always right. There are certain players who might bend that slightly. You don’t see it often. I’m just saying, it’s really in the player’s head, if he believes it crossed a certain point, and if he can live with himself.
How often do you see cheating in a year?
I can’t think of an instance. I might occasionally see a caddie flashing what club was hit. Some people might not call that cheating. When I see that, it might have been to the TV guy over my shoulder. I might have thought it was to another player. I can’t think of anything. It’s still a gentleman’s game, and we call penalties on ourselves. I’m still impressed when a guy comes out of the woods and says, `Hey, you know what, my ball moved back there and I replaced it and I added a shot to my score.’
You tamed the Bear Trap (the 15th-17th holes) when you won that first year here at PGA National. You made birdie at the 17th in the playoff to win. There’s a lot of water through those three holes. How tough are they?
You really need to have a lot of confidence on those tee shots, to pick a good line. It’s all about the wind on those holes. You hit some crazy clubs there. That 15th hole last year played into the wind every day, and I’m hitting 4-iron. Same on the 17th, I was hitting 3- and 4-irons. In wind, it accentuates any spin you put on the ball. It may balloon or slice into the water. But you can also make birdies through there. If you hit quality shots, you are going to have makeable putts. That’s what is neat about those holes. No lead is safe. You can make 5 and 6 so easy through there.
The 15th and 17th are both tough par 3s. Which is tougher and how do you rank them among the toughest par 3s you play on the PGA Tour?
I think the 17th’s a little tougher. It’s got a little more length. And I think the elevated tee has something to do with it, too, with the wind there. The ball is in the air just a little bit longer. At 15, at least you are level with the green. It seems like a bigger green at the 15th.
I would put both of those par 3s ahead of the 17th at Sawgrass because of the wind. I would put the 12th at Muirfield Village first, that hour-glass green there makes it tough to get the ball in the right quadrant.
You and your wife, Amy, are expecting your first child right around the Masters. If you win an event here before the Masters and qualify to play at Augusta National, what will you do?
My wife and I talked about what would happen if I did get into the Masters. Our baby is due five days after the Masters concludes. I have to qualify first, but with that being said, if I got in the tournament and my wife went into labor, I am leaving the moment I hear. The birth of your child is so important. I have enough confidence in myself that I will get back to the Masters. My goals for the year, really starting the year, have been more spiritual goals than golf goals. I think if I’m in the right frame of mind and my perspective is in the right spot, my golf is going to prosper. I’m focusing more on that.
What kind of spiritual goals?
I’m just trying to get closer to God, Jesus Christ. I’ve just kind of figured that out the last year, my role in the world and the game. I think he’s put me here to draw more people to him. I feel like the stage I have gives me that opportunity, and I don’t want to waste that opportunity sulking about a round. That’s a day you can witness.
You came excruciatingly close to making the Tour Championship last year and all the rewards that come with it. Did that depress you or motivate you?
I took it as encouragement. I had that great week at Cog Hill (before the Tour Championship). I got paired with Tiger on Saturday. I was tied for the lead, on my home course. It was a magical week. I came out flat on Sunday but played well down the stretch. I took an aggressive line on the 18th with a 6-iron. I probably should have hit 5-iron to the fat of the green and taken my chances at making par, but I knew the birdie would have gotten me into the Tour Championship. I made a really solid swing and pulled it slightly in the water. I made a good bogey and walked away with no regrets. I woke up the next morning happy I had my best FedEx Cup showing ever and wasn’t thinking, `Now I’m not in the Masters or the U.S. Open.’ It would have been a lot easier scheduling this year, but it is what it is, and I’ve done things in small steps in my career. It was motivation.