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Survivor

Most of the headliners took a pass on the Honda Classic, but their understudies and a tough new venue combined for the show of the season

Posted: Tuesday March 6, 2007 2:31PM; Updated: Tuesday March 6, 2007 2:31PM
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On Friday, Wilson called a penalty on himself. On Monday he triumphed in a four-man playoff.
On Friday, Wilson called a penalty on himself. On Monday he triumphed in a four-man playoff.
David Walberg/SI
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Guess what? You can have a PGA Tour event without Tiger, Phil, Vijay and Ernie. The Honda Classic, which wrapped up with a four-man playoff on Monday morning, had a B-list field yet turned out to be the best tournament of the year.

An odd congregation of golfers gathered on the 10th tee of the Champion course at PGA National, on the wrong side of I-95 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., for the shootout. The four understudies were country boy Boo Weekley, chew in his lower lip firmly plugged in; Camilo Villegas, the stylish Colombian who looked delightfully out of place among the South Florida retirees; Josť Coceres, the veteran Argentine who was muttering swing thoughts to himself in Spanish; and Mark Wilson, a tiny (5'7", 145 pounds) guy who has been scraping the edges of the Tour for years, a short, crooked hitter who putts like a dream. Wilson, 32 and married with a first child on the way, had made a huge deposit in the karma bank last Friday; now, three days later, he was rewarded with the oversized winner's check in the amount of $990,000.

Wilson is steeped in golf. (Not all Tour pros are, believe it or not.) He grew up playing a Donald Ross course, Oconomowoc Golf Club, in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where "you learned how to hit shots," he says. He knows what Kenny Perry did at the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla, where Perry sat in the CBS booth being interviewed by Ken Venturi when he should have been preparing for a playoff, which he subsequently lost. Thus, when a Tour official asked Wilson if he'd do an NBC interview with sunset fast approaching last Saturday night, he said, "What I'd really like to do is practice." And that's what he did, concluding his brief session by hitting fairway bunker shots, something you almost never see anybody work on (except Vijay and Tiger).

Wilson also knows that some years ago, Tour pro Greg Chalmers called a two-shot penalty on himself when he heard his caddie give club advice to another player in the group. And then Wilson found himself standing on the 5th tee during the second round, playing with Larry Mize and, it so happened, Villegas. Wilson hit his shot on the 215-yard hole and then he heard his caddie, Chris Jones, say to Villegas's caddie, "The 18 degree." In other words, Jones's man had hit his 18-degree hybrid, the modern two-iron, on the hole.

Jones simply blurted it out, unthinking. "I was getting a little too friendly, a little too comfortable," Jones says. Wilson was hot for about two seconds. "I've told you to be careful about that," he told his caddie, then called for a rules official, the former Tour player Brett Upper, who informed Wilson what he already knew: giving advice, whether you do it or your caddie does, costs you two shots. The par 3 Wilson made on the hole was now a 5. Villegas immediately asked, "Is there a penalty for me, too?" There was not. The penalty is for giving, not receiving. Golf has its own weird ways. Wilson immediately put caddie Jones at ease. "Don't worry about it," he told him. "Let's move on. I've done a lot of things that have cost me shots, too." Still, Jones spent the rest of the day "feeling as if I were going to puke"; his employer's Friday 66 could've been a six-under 64.

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