- Farrell Evans, Golf
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In 2008, Chris Jones phoned his boss Mark Wilson during the Ryder Cup at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky. The caddie had been mesmerized by the energy of the partisan crowds and the excitement surrounding the matches. He told Wilson they had to make an American team. Wilson, a former University of North Carolina math major, had gotten his maiden tour win the year before at the Honda Classic. He was now an established tour player, but the Ryder Cup wasn't in his sights. His most significant match play experience had been a 2 and 1 loss to Tiger Woods in the 1992 U.S. Junior Amateur finals.
"Chris got me excited a little about the matches," Wilson said, "but I wasn't ready to make a Ryder Cup team back then. I wasn't secure in my ability."
Since Valhalla, Wilson, 37, has won four times on the PGA Tour, including the Humana Challenge in January. He has a very good chance of making the U.S. Ryder Cup team that will host the matches at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club in late September. Since 2006, Wilson has lived with his wife, Amy, and two sons, in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, which is about a 20-minute drive from Medinah.
Heading into the Transitions Championship this week at the Innisbrook Resort near Tampa, Wilson is sixth in the U.S. team standings.
"I have to play some pretty good golf the rest of the year to make it," said Wilson, who grew up outside Milwaukee in Menomonee Falls, Wis. "At the beginning of the year I saw that it was on the schedule and at Medinah and I feel like that's the next step in my career.
"I have won on the PGA Tour but I haven't played great in the majors. I think those two things kind of go together: contend in some majors and make a team. What better place to do it than in my hometown."
For Wilson, a self-described late-bloomer, the 2012 season will mark just the second time he will play all four majors in one year. After winning two out of his first three events in 2011, Wilson made debuts last year at the Masters and the British Open.
"It's been a learning process for me at every level," he said. "I didn't just come out here like some of these young guys and just start winning. I have had to learn what works."
In 2011, Wilson missed the cut in three of the four majors and learned a valuable lesson about how to approach the big tournaments.
"I need to downplay the majors," he said. "I have to treat them just like another tournament and prepare the same way and try not to overanalyze the course or what I need to do or change equipment."
Last year before the Masters, he made the customary pilgrimage to Augusta National a few weeks before the event to soak in some of the pageantry of the place before he got there on tournament week. But this year he plans to get there only a few days before Thursday's first round.
"I wouldn't go to a regular PGA Tour event a month early. The Masters is the one that we strive to play, but I need to downplay it and not put it on a pedestal. If I do that, I'm going to struggle," Wilson said.
But it's difficult to downplay Wilson's match play inexperience. As an amateur, he never made a Walker Cup team and he played in the NCAAs long before they went to a match play format. Rickie Fowler might have been a 21-year-old kid when he played in the 2010 Ryder Cup, but he had been a stalwart on the '07 and '09 U.S. Walker Cup teams.
Wilson had been on tour nine years before he got some professional match play experience in two matches last year at the WGC-Accenture Match Play. He would get a huge boost to his confidence this year at the Match Play, where he finished third, beating perennial European Ryder Cupper Lee Westwood in the consolation match.
"It was good to get those six matches in this year," Wilson said. "They could help me in the Ryder Cup if I make that team. I wouldn't have had any match play experience to tee it up on that stage. I don't think I would have been prepared for it.
"It was a great week. I was really confident in my game. I just ran into a buzz saw in Hunter Mahan, the guy who won the tournament."
Wilson doesn't plan to lobby Davis Love III for one of his four captain's picks if he doesn't make the team on points. Thus far he's kept his conversations with his fellow Tar Heels alum to college basketball.
"I need to make the team for myself," he said. "I couldn't imagine being a captain's pick because I live near Chicago. I have no experience on team events. So I wouldn't be a very good pick. It's not like I'm this flashy guy that will draw thousands to Medinah to see me play."
Wilson has never played Medinah, which most recently hosted the 2006 PGA Championship. Tiger Woods won that major along with the 1999 PGA also held at the same club. Wilson doesn't play much golf when he's home, but when he does, it's at Butler National or Cog Hill. This summer, he says, he'll try to play Medinah.
But Wilson is trying his best to not get wrapped up in the frenzy around making the team or the pressure that comes with representing your country on an international stage.
"When I watch golf tournaments on TV they are made very dramatic," he said. "Even though I am a huge golf fan, I stay away from watching much golf on TV, because I don't want to get caught up in that drama and obviously the Ryder Cup is hyped and very dramatic. But at the end of the day, it's just us out there playing golf."
In the meantime, Wilson understands he has to continue his good form to have a realistic chance of making the team. For him, a Ryder Cup appearance is but a by-product of his fastening to a process-oriented routine. He says he'll look at the standings, but he won't think about them while he's on the golf course. His schedule is set and he won't add events to try to improve his standings.
"The Ryder Cup would be great but it's not the ultimate goal. I want to play well in the majors. That's the first goal that will take care of the second one," Wilson said.
His wife is due with their third child on August 19, a week after the PGA Championship and the announcement of the eight automatic qualifiers to the U.S. team.
"I'm not going to miss that," he said. "That's first priority. If I'm leading the PGA Championship and she calls and tells me that she's in labor, I'm out of there. I will have a lot more tournaments in my life."
This week Wilson has to contend with the tough Copperhead course at Innisbrook. In 2011, the par-71, 7,340-yard Larry Packard-design ranked the 27th most difficult course out of the 51 used on the PGA Tour. Copperhead's last three holes, dubbed the Snake Pit, comprise one of the toughest finishing stretches on tour. Wilson's best finish here was a tie for 12th in '09.
Always the meticulous plodder, Wilson isn't looking past Transitions toward a date in late September outside Chicago. He has Bay Hill next week and then the Masters in early April and a big summer of events. Though the Ryder Cup still seems so far off, he can't help but think about what it might be like to have the matches in his favorite town.
"I would stay with the team but my house would be full of relatives and friends," said Wilson, who lived in downtown Chicago for two years before moving with his family to Elmhurst. "The neatest part I hear is that team camaraderie. That bond that you are able to make with players that you wouldn't otherwise have unless you were a part of a team."
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.
Mark Wilson hopes to play well this week at the Transitions Championship, of course, but there's a little event called the Ryder Cup on his mind that's being played near his home outside Chicago, writes ESPN.com's Farrell Evans.