Amateur goes from pumping gas to Magnolia Lane

Augusta — Feel free to get lost in the comeback stories — even if they fall a little short.

Tiger Woods comes back from knee surgery and wins at Bay Hill. But was he cleaning gas-station toilets during rehab?

Greg Norman comes back to Augusta National for the first time in seven years. But the man’s been canoodling with Chris Evert and designing golf courses.

Steve Wilson? He’s been designing po-boys.

“Roast beef with gravy, and shrimp,” he says, proudly.

Somebody mentions “British” this week and most naturally think, “Open.” Steve Wilson thinks “Petroleum” — because while he’s in Augusta, some one else has to be cleaning bathrooms, selling sandwiches and counting the cash drawer back at the BP stations in Ocean Springs, Miss.

“I’m having a hard time getting comfortable here,” Wilson admitted Wednesday after a practice round. “I kind of feel like somebody’s ugly cousin at the ball.”

Steve Wilson, here with his son Gavan at Wednesday's par-3 tournament, is one of the unlikely stories at this year's Masters.

Mississippi amateur Steve Wilson, shown here with his son Gavan at Wednesday's par-3 tournament, is one of the unlikely stories at this year's Masters.

The 73rd Masters begins today. Over 1,100 golfers have played in this tournament. Most, as is the norm for the sport, have blended in with the landscape.

Steve Wilson doesn’t blend.

He’s a 39-year-old amateur. He was an All-American at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, which sets him apart from those in the clubhouse who were All-American at Stanford or Florida or Georgia Tech.

He tried for 10 years to play pro but fizzled. He needed to support his family and was forced to get a real job. So he returned home to pump gas and clean bathrooms. But he continued playing, reclaimed his amateur status in 2005 and, strangely, that led to something implausible: a Masters’ invitation. He qualified in September by winning the Mid-Amateur championship in Milwaukee.

Everything has been a blur since. Wilson calls this week “surreal.” He looks at the Thursday groupings and sees an 11:29 a.m. tee time that includes: Tom Watson (two-time Masters champion), Ian Poulter (The Open runner-up) and Steve Wilson (who according to his father used to wow them at the Keesler Air Force base in Biloxi).

He has tried to act normal when meeting Woods and Fred Couples and Sergio Garcia. He said he also met Arnold Palmer, and then backed off.

“Actually my son did,” Wilson said. “He asked for an autograph, and I was just there. I said hello.”

Gavan Wilson is nine years old. He can’t fully grasp what this week means to his father. He doesn’t understand the financial wear of just playing in the Masters (Wilson estimates expenses at $15,000 but declined the near $5,000 friends raised for him, instead donating the money to a junior golf program).

Gavan caddied for his father in Wednesday’s par-3 tournament. That probably was a bigger deal for him than when the mayor of Ocean Springs gave his dad the key to the city.

Which begs the question: What does the key to Ocean Springs open?

“We told him he should see if it works at the doughnut stand,” said one of his brothers, David. “You know, he’s a little bit chunky.”

Wilson’s brothers, David and Tom, Jr., and their father Tom, took it all in Wednesday. David motioned to Tom Jr. and said, “He and I took golf lessons, but it seemed to pay off more for Steve.”

The Wilson family did not live a country-club existence. Tom Sr. is retired from the air force.

“I didn’t build Steve a green and a sand trap in the backyard like Phil Mickelson’s dad did,” he said. “We had limited funds. He got here by himself. But that’s better.”

Steve Wilson laughed when asked if he’ll try to capitalize on his celebrity at the BP station.

“Maybe a Masters Po-boy,” he said.

Which seemed as implausible as the guy who’ll make it.

Jeff Schultz, fighting to stay relevant with peeps under 40, can be reached via email (jschultz@ajc.com), Facebook, Tweeter (SchultzAJC) or carrier pigeon (make a right off 400).

13 comments Add your comment

Whopper Dawg

April 8th, 2009
7:32 pm

Now I know who I am pulling for in this year’s tournament. Thanks.

Spud Webb

April 8th, 2009
8:09 pm

Great story. I hope he does well.

Ted Striker

April 8th, 2009
8:31 pm

It would be great if this guy makes the cut — but no matter what, it’s still pretty great he’s here.

Master’s crowds have a real way of showing hospitality, especially to guys like this.

Terrible Truth

April 8th, 2009
9:20 pm

You gotta respect Greg Norman for coming back to the place he choked, (yes, Terence, CHOKED!) in ‘96.

That, and for nailing Chrissy Evert.

Reebok

April 9th, 2009
8:16 am

i hope this guy makes the cut so he can play the weekend. what an experience!

Coondawg69

April 9th, 2009
8:58 am

Jeff, thank you for this GREAT article.
I was able to go to Tuesday’s practice round. Steve just hit onto 12. The caddy gives him a second bottle of water. Steve says something like, what am I to do with 2 bottles of water. A lady sitting in the front row says, I’ll take one. Steve comes over and hands her the unopened water. she thanks him and then her husband/ boyfriend says, how about a quick picture. Steve says sure, leans across the rope, snap, and then goes on with his round.
I then turn to my brother-in-law and say, now there’s a guy who get’s it.
Thanks again for this back story of what appears to be a man who truly understands and appreciates his place.

Jeff Schultz

April 9th, 2009
9:42 am

Thanks all for the comments. Sitting down in the media room after awful traffic jam between here and AJC house. Augusta police claim they’ve fixed the traffic problem this year. HAH! It’s worse than ever. If anybody has any ques, but I’ll be looking at leader board for a little while before I head out to the course. …. Coondawg69: Good story. Wilson is genuinely a good guy. It would be a tremendous story if he made the cut.

MN Possum

April 9th, 2009
10:18 am

Jeff – best column on the Masters since Lewis Grizzard’s “Gatewood Dooper at The Masters.”

Dawg Fud

April 9th, 2009
10:41 am

nice article, jeff.

Jeff Schultz

April 9th, 2009
10:55 am

## Don’t know where it’s like where you are but unbelievable weather today in Augusta. It’s one of those, “I get paid to be here?” kind of days. Now watch. It’ll probably start hailing at 11:15.
## Fisher the early leader at 3-under through 9. He’s not in my pool so here’s to him shanking his 10th tee shot off a tree.
## Early Ugly Award: Billy Mayfair +6 through 10 (and no, he’s not on my team either).

Michael Scharff

April 9th, 2009
2:02 pm

HOLY COW! Chad Campbell birdied the first 5 holes! Jeff, has this ever been done before?

bogeyman

April 10th, 2009
10:44 am

Jeff just sent my carrier pigeon to find out why they asked t.Moore to play Augusta but not you?

Brozysow

April 9th, 2010
10:45 pm

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