LA QUINTA, Calif. -- As Mark Wilson was warming up Thursday for his first round on the Nicklaus course at PGA West, he was struggling to keep his head down on his putts. The 37-year-old Wisconsin native didn't feel confident that he could start his putts on the right line. He tried looking at a spot in front of the ball, but that didn't work. So he went back to an old trick he's used over the years. He marked his Titleist ball with a black dot and focused his eyes on it on until the ball was gone. It worked.
"I made every putt that I should make the first two days," said Wilson, who shot 66 in his first round and followed that with a 62 on Friday.
With the sun fast descending behind the Santa Rosa Mountains on Sunday evening, Wilson made a 10-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win the Humana Challenge. It was his fifth career win and third in two years.
Having success at the beginning of the season is nothing new for Wilson, who won two of his first three events in 2011.
"Last year feels distant," Wilson said. "I'm trying to remember the good things that I did from last year and carry them over to this year. So far so good, I think."
Wilson, who lives with his family outside Chicago, is an unconventional PGA Tour star. He's not a long hitter or a spectacular putter. He is a tinkerer: the kind of player who will use his University of North Carolina math degree to beat more stylish players with grit and hard work.
"Mark has accepted that he has his own unique swing," said his swing coach, Dr. Jim Suttie. "He knows his game and doesn't try to copy other players."
Suttie says that Wilson's swing looked great this week, but he believes that his putting was the key factor in his success.
"His pace is so good right now with his putter," Dr. Suttie said.
On Sunday evening with one hole to play, Wilson had 1-shot lead over Robert Garrigus, Johnson Wagner and John Mallinger. After hitting a 2-hybrid into the green on his second shot at the par-5 finishing hole, Wilson was in great shape to win. Garrigus could tie him with a birdie or take the lead with an eagle. After Garrigus ran his eagle putt by the hole, Wilson needed only to focus one more time on the black dot. In the gloaming he could see the hole, but he was focusing only on starting the putt on the right line.
After he made that birdie putt to win by 2 shots, he met his wife and two boys near the 18th green. Earlier he had taken his sons to the tour nursery school after playing three holes over at La Quinta Country Club to finish his third round. A day that had started at 5:15 a.m. was now over and he could focus on what he had just accomplished. He'll take up the black dot again on Thursday when he starts play at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego.
Tiger should leave greater tracks
As I was watching Bill Clinton play on Saturday morning with Greg Norman and Scotty McCarron in the third round of the Humana Challenge, I was reminded by a colleague that Tiger Woods had turned down invitations to play with the former President a half-dozen times.
In December, during his Chevron World Challenge, Tiger was asked about Clinton's invitation to play in the event. When a reporter asked him how hard it was to turn down the presidents, Tiger said he didn't know anything about an invitation. Instead of greeting the news of the invite with gratitude, he went into an explanation of his schedule and family commitments. It was clear from his response that he had no intention of playing in the tournament.
So as Tiger tees it up for the first time this season at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship this coming week, I would like for him to consider the advice that George H.W. Bush gave Greg Norman, when he was struggling over whether or not to play with Clinton in 1994.
Bush told him simply to respect the office of the president.
Tiger doesn't have to like Clinton or his politics to support the tournament and the health and wellness initiatives pushed by Humana and the Clinton Foundation.
It says a lot about Phil Mickelson's character that after a five-year hiatus from the event, he showed up for the president and the new 72-hole format. Hopefully, Tiger will in the future join the president as he tries to use the PGA Tour to bring more awareness to some of our most serious health concerns.
Early last week I ran into Bill Haas, a past Humana Challenge winner and the 2011 FedEx Cup playoffs champion. The 29-year-old former Wake Forest star told me that he preferred the tournament's old format of 90 holes spread out over four courses and five days. In 1988, his father, Jay, won the event.
"I thought the old format was kind of cool," Bill Haas said. "They were doing it that way for 52 years. Who are we to say that they should change it?"
This week there was an overwhelming consensus among the players that the new slimmer format -- 72 holes in four days over three courses with fewer amateurs -- made for a better tournament. In years past, players had complained of the five-hour-plus rounds and the slog of 90 holes.
Any measure taken to speed up play is good for the game, but Bill Haas makes a good point about holding some reverence for the history of the tournament and what made it unique on the PGA Tour. The old Bob Hope Classic and the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am are reminders of the days when tournaments routinely meshed entertainment with a serious but leisurely game that experienced an extraordinary boom in popularity after World War II. Over 90 holes, players could put up tons of birdies in perfect weather and the fans could enjoy the celebrities and the excellent play by the pros.
Now with a shortened field of celebrities and amateurs, former President Bill Clinton represents Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby and all the famous names that participated in the event's glory years. We couldn't roast Clinton on the first tee Saturday the way Hope had done to so many of his friends over the years, but we could enjoy the president's singular charisma and bask in his celebrity.
I heard one fan complain that Humana should have paid homage to Hope by keeping his name in the title of the event.
Perhaps it's the right thing to not peg a tournament too closely to one person for too long. Look at the slide in popularity of the Byron Nelson and the Colonial since the deaths of their patriarchs.
That's the sponsor's prerogative to name its tournament, but what's undeniable is that the 90-hole marathon gave players a chance to compete for five days.
On Sunday morning, Bill Haas was the last player to make the 54-hole cut at 6-under par. In years past when the event had a 72-hole cut, he would have had a chance at this point with two good rounds to win the tournament. Who can forget David Duval's final-round 59 on Sunday in 1999 to come from 7 shots back at the start of the day to win the tournament?
The Humana Challenge is now an event with a smattering of celebrities and amateurs and a popular ex-president with a mission to save our children from obesity. Those would be significant qualities for any tournament, but the old Bob Hope Classic was something special that's now gone for good.
Wellness and health on the PGA Tour
Humana CEO Mike McCallister told me this week that one of his objectives for the tournament in the future was to urge every player in the field to wear a pedometer, which counts walking steps and calculates stats like calories burned.
According to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, tour players walk on average 650 miles a year on the golf course.
So the players don't have an exercise problem, at least not when it comes to the walking part.
Still, it was interesting to see during the tournament that players, caddies and fans smoked cigarettes and cigars and chewed tobacco at a golf event sponsored by a corporation whose mantra centers around wellness and healthy living.
Presently, the PGA Tour doesn't have a policy on its players using cigarettes or smokeless tobacco on the golf course. The tour also doesn't prohibit fans from consuming tobacco products on the golf course.
"If the World Anti-Doping Agency put nicotine on its anti-doping list, the PGA Tour would review the addition and determine if it warranted inclusion on the current PGA Tour banned list," said Ty Votaw, the tour's executive vice president of communications and international affairs. "However, we do not believe that such a change is imminent."
If Bill Clinton and McCallister want to get the players more involved in the future in the Health Matters conference that precedes the tournament, they might start a discussion with the tour about the players' use of tobacco on the golf course.
Perhaps the answer isn't to ban cigarettes or smokeless tobacco on tour. Nicotine is nearly synonymous with Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and legions of great players from the pioneering days of pro golf. Also, banning tobacco products without considering doing the same with caffeine, which like nicotine is a stimulant, would make it difficult to remain consistent on the issue.
Nevertheless, if the tour is going to truly be out front on wellness and healthy living, it has to deal with one of the major public health issues that persists on its own turf.
Branden Grace, a 23-year-old South African, beat two of his childhood heroes on Sunday in a playoff at the Volvo Golf Champions for his second consecutive European Tour win.
Last week at the Joburg Open in Johannesburg, the recent European Tour Q-school grad got his maiden victory on the tour. On Sunday at The Links at Fancourt in George, South Africa, the Pretoria native beat Retief Goosen and Ernie Els with a birdie on the first extra hole.
Could Grace be the next great South African player to emerge on the international scene? At the Volvo Golf Champions, he not only beat Els and Goosen, he also took out Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, recent South African major champions. Grace should take great comfort in knowing that all of these great South Africans groomed their games on the country's Sunshine Tour, before breaking through in Europe and the U.S.
With the two wins, Grace will certainly gain opportunities to play in the U.S., where he will get to see his game on a bigger stage. Regardless of his future success in events outside of South Africa, it's been very impressive to watch a guy right out of Q-school win two weeks in a row against top-notch fields.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.