It is the night before a tournament starts when Mark Wilson opens the door to his hotel room and heads out for one last bit of preparation. He has already eaten dinner—a plate of chicken and rice, perhaps, or turkey with nothing on it. "No condiments," says good friend Zach Johnson. "He's a ridiculously picky eater." Wilson walks to a meeting room in the hotel where nearly 30 people have gathered. Johnson is there, among some other PGA Tour players, caddies and wives. For the next hour to 90 minutes they share stories of God and courage, Jesus and inspiration, and how it relates to their lives. Wilson is at home here.
When he won his first Tour event, the 2007 Honda Classic, Wilson couldn't wait to attend the Tour's Bible study the following Wednesday to share the story of his journey. He had always envisioned a victory of perfect shotmaking and easy birdies, but that's not what happened. During the second round he called a two-shot penalty on himself after his caddie told his playing partner, Camilo Villegas, the loft of the club Wilson had used. During the final round Wilson kept hitting the ball sideways and somehow rolling in 50-footers to save par. This was something to talk about.
"God has a better story for you than you can ever imagine," he explained to the room.
Since winning the Honda, the 5'8", 145-pound Wilson has added four more victories. He has only average length, but he's accurate and scrambles well, which allows him to pound fairways and greens, and then sink putts with a cross-handed grip. It's not an exciting style, and he travels the Tour all but unnoticed. Wilson can often be found at some store or restaurant near the tournament where a well-meaning couple will ask if he's enjoying the golf. Yes, Wilson will say. Well, in which grandstand did you sit, young man? Which group did you follow?
Wilson, politely and always with a smile, will say that he actually played in the tournament. He might have even won it. "And then they're floored," Wilson says.
"The most impressive thing about Mark is that nothing stands out," says Charles Howell. "He doesn't have a glaring weakness. He plays—and this is a compliment—very boring golf. He has the qualities of a Fred Funk, because he drives the ball extremely straight. His swing mechanics remind me a little of Ben Hogan. He's one of the few guys that putts cross-handed, and it looks very natural."
Says Hunter Mahan, who defeated Wilson in the semifinals and then went on to win the Accenture Match Play Championship earlier this year, "He defies all that we look for in a player nowadays. We look for a guy who is big, tall, strong, young, hits it far. You can tell that nothing bothers him. There's no situation too big for him. He's not intimidated by anyone."
At 37, Wilson represents something else, too—a golfer whose faith in his ability and faith in his God have coalesced into something he sees as tangible. It is a formidable combination in a game in which one pulled putt or one drive past the O.B. stakes can obliterate all kinds of belief.
This is the 15th club Wilson carries into his second appearance at the Masters. "I used to think of myself as more of a steady player, but I see that momentum has a lot to do with my game," he says. "When I get that putter hot, it's like I just kind of keep going. If I can have a week like that at Augusta National, you bet I think I can win."
Wilson does not mention his putter by accident. From junior golf to college at North Carolina to the mini-tours and beyond, Wilson's short game has been his equalizer. Along with his younger sister, Julie, he grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Menomonee Falls, the son of accountants. His father, Les, was a scratch golfer at Oconomowoc Golf Club, an old Donald Ross design that served as Wilson's playground for five months out of the year. (There are pictures of Mark and his childhood friend Darren Gorman, frolicking in the practice bunkers as toddlers.) Mark played golf and soccer, but basketball was his first love.