By Mark Wilson with Jeff Hopper

The sixth hole was always the measure.

In the beginning, I played golf with my dad at Oconomowoc Golf Club outside Milwaukee. I was 12 years old and didn’t have much sense of the history of the place, a Donald Ross course built in 1916. I just knew there was only one hole I had a chance of reaching with one shot. The par-3 sixth, squeezed into the corner of the property farthest from the clubhouse, was just 135 yards from the men’s tee. When I was 8, I’d take out my driver and hope to miss the front bunker and stop the ball on the green.

The sixth later became the first hole where I could tee off with an iron and reach the green, and so on down the line. By the time I left for college, most days I launched a 7-iron into the air and expected it to land pretty close to the hole.

Today the course where I grew to love the game “stretches” to just 6,460 yards from the tips. It was the first course where I broke 100, and the first course where I broke 70. I’ve been back to play it a few times since, and as you might imagine, a course like that brings back as many memories as the Ping Eye 2 irons or old Ping A-Blade putter I keep in my office and look at from time to time. That putter is marked with paint and whiteout and whatever other methods I used to put an aiming line on it—it’s funny to see now, how much those little things mattered to me even as a kid.

Back in 1987, my mom would drop me off at the club and I’d spend the whole day there. That was the summer I fell in love with golf.

Professional golf isn’t much different from a lot of other things in life. If you love it, you’ll do just about all you can to stick with it. In golf, if you work hard and everything comes together, you get to play with the very best. You get to play on the PGA Tour.

When I was a kid at Oconomowoc, I wasn’t sure this was possible. I sure loved the game and I was pursuing it, but until I won some college events it was hard to know whether I could compete at the highest level.

I left Wisconsin after high school to attend the University of North Carolina. I was determined to break into the lineup right away, but it was no easy task. The qualifying included about 15 rounds, while at the same time I was getting accustomed to living away from home and keeping up with a collegiate study regimen. Basically, it was grueling, a big eye-opener when it came to time management. But I made it. In fact, I played every tournament my freshman year, except the NCAAs. I was from Wisconsin. We played golf maybe six months a year. By the time spring rolled around, I’d been playing for 12 months straight, and I think it caught up with me. That was OK. I had three years to go, and I would learn to pace myself.

Then I won the ACC Championship when I was a college junior, to go along with several amateur events I’d won back in Wisconsin, and I got to thinking about the possibilities. I mean, my game was showing signs of great play, but I’d never been able to measure my skill against any guys playing on tour. Still, I thought, Hey, once I get done with college, I definitely want to try it.

I stayed at UNC an extra semester to finish up my mathematics degree, which was important to me, but I went to Qualifying School that fall, too. I didn’t make it, but my dad was able to round up some sponsors for me, so I headed to the Hooters Tour in 1998 with every intention of playing well at Q-School and trying to get to the PGA Tour at some point. I didn’t know how long that might take, but I wanted to enjoy the journey. It took five more tries at Q-School before I broke through to the PGA Tour. And in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, I didn’t make enough money to keep my card without going back.

Leaping ahead to where I sit now, I’ve had four wins on the PGA Tour, including two in early 2011 that catapulted me to the head of the FedEx Cup points standings for a number of weeks. But looking back, I would have to say that one of my most significant highlights in the game came in the fall of 2004, when I had to head back to Q-School yet again.

I was engaged to Amy at the time, having first met on a blind date on the recommendation of some friends. We both came to that date with some rather low expectations, but that was probably a blessing. The pressure was off and we hit it off right away. She was working for Accenture at the time and traveling more than I was, so she understood that travel was part of my job, and that helped too. We got engaged after 16 months of dating and were moving toward our wedding date that fall.

But here I was back at Q-School, hoping to get back to the PGA Tour for 2005 and I came to the sixth round at PGA West right on the bubble. A good round and I would have my PGA Tour card again, a bad round and I would fall back to the Nationwide Tour.

I came to the last hole that day, which was the difficult 450-yard par-4 ninth at the Stadium Course. There is water all the way down the right side, and in front of the green. The pin that day was sitting up on a tier. My tee shot, though, did not go where I wanted it, finding the bunker along the water’s edge. A 5-iron in hand, I was pretty certain I needed to make birdie to qualify. But I hit the best 5-iron I’ve ever hit in my life, the ball coming to rest about 20 feet from the hole. I made the putt, and sure enough, that got me in “on the number,” as they say. I ran up the hill and hugged Amy, knowing it would make our wedding year a whole lot easier!

It’s easy to look back on a golfing career—or any career, I suppose—and call the good times the highlights. But there are so many lows in professional golf. It is always the lows from which I learned so much. Each time I’ve had a success, I can look back and see what propelled me to that, and usually it was a string of missed cuts or some poor play that made me change my approach or my attitude. It’s hard to welcome those hardships when they come, but I try to welcome them now, because I have so much experience in the past of those being the things that have helped me the most.

That whole way of thinking certainly applies to the success I had in 2011. The year before was not good. I went to the 2010 Disney, which is the last tournament of the season, needing a top-10 finish to close inside the top 125 for the season. I was already exempt for 2011 because of my win at the Mayakoba Classic in 2009, but finishing in the top 125 would get me into the Players Championship, and I just thought it was something I needed to do for my own confidence after a rather disappointing season.

In the end, I had a consistent week and secured a sixth-place finish. It was a finally a good result, one that I could dwell on during the weeks off ahead of the 2011 season.

I began 2011 in Hawaii, at the Sony Open. I was feeling so good about my game that when it rained on Wednesday and the pro-am was cancelled, I didn’t worry about finding a practice range nearby. I thought, That’s fine. My game’s good. I feel good about everything. It rained Thursday, too, and I did hit a few balls that day, but I was still relaxed, at peace. I didn’t focus on what everybody else was doing, because I felt so good about my game.

After the cut, we moved to a 36-hole day on Sunday. That’s a lot of golf, but I wasn’t in the lead when I started that morning, so I wasn’t feeling any pressure. I just wanted to go out and play well. And lo and behold, at the end of the fourth round, as we walked up to the eighteenth green, I asked my caddie where I stood and he said, “You’re two ahead.” It was a welcome surprise!

The positives from that win carried over to Phoenix three weeks later at the Waste Management Open. I knew that a good result there could get me into the Match Play, the U.S. Open and the British Open Championship. I love the course in Phoenix and had played well there before, so I just free-wheeled it that week, and everything seemed to go my direction.

Again we had weather issues, and we were trying to play 36 holes on Sunday. But this time, frost delayed us in the morning, and we didn’t finish. Instead, I left the course and headed to watch my lifelong beloved NFL team, the Packers, win the Super Bowl. Before the sunset, David Feherty, who had been following us as the on-course reporter for CBS that day, kept giving us updates on the football game. That helped me get away from the magnitude of the golf tournament between shots. I was able to just keep focusing on my routine when each shot came.

That was actually more concentrating than I was able to do on the football game once I got back to where our family was staying. I had to eat, and then our four-year-old son, Lane, wanted to play Candy Land. So we did—in the middle of the fourth quarter. Finally, with about two minutes to go in the game, we sat down and watched to the end. The result was a satisfying Packers championship.

I didn’t sleep that well, but the next morning, my own finish delivered a big measure of satisfaction too. I closed the round in a tie with Jason Dufner, who birdied two holes late to catch me. But then I made a nine-foot birdie putt to win on the second playoff hole. What a start!

It’s hard to undervalue a good start. It is what Amy and I are trying to give our two boys. We’re training them now according to the things we know will serve them well when they are adults—having good character and morals and being caring toward others. A lot of this is done by our own example, but there has to be some discipline mixed in to direct them. Here’s what we want most of all: we want our sons to want to know the Lord.

This is the kind of start I was given in life. My parents raised me around the church. They sent me to some good Lutheran schools there in Wisconsin. So I was taught the Bible stories and was given a great foundation through the Bible classes we had every day.

But all of this kicked in for me once I was on my own. In college and beyond, ideas about God and biblical teaching weren’t being fed to me on a consistent basis. I had to go out and get them. I had to want to grow in my relationship with Jesus. Yes, I knew the Bible stories. Yes, I had heard many times how Jesus had come to die for my sins. But there’s so much more to learn. In fact, lately Amy and I have been diving deeper and deeper into God’s word, the Bible, and we’ve been learning that you can never learn enough. You cover one thing, and it ignites you to go down another avenue and try to learn that. It’s not that it’s complicated, it’s just that we’re talking about God here, and there’s so much to learn. What’s great is that I’m not alone in this pursuit. Amy is there with me, and while we read on our own for the most part, if something strikes us, we want to discuss it with each other to see what we think about it.

Out on tour, we have a weekly Bible study, and our chaplains Larry Moody and Dave Krueger are available to answer questions and offer counsel when we need it. I don’t want to start naming people for fear of leaving somebody out, but there are so many players and wives and caddies and TV people that come out to the study. It’s neat to see them there, working on some of the same things in their life and faith that we are. We’re able to help each other out, lift each other up.

One of our biggest concerns as players who profess a faith in God is how to rightly handle the platform he has given to us. A favorite verse of mine in the Bible gives us Jesus’ own words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore, let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” I have a lot of things I would like to say about Jesus, and there are times—when it isn’t forced—that I might say some of these things in an interview. But what is more likely is that people are going to be looking at me because I am a professional golfer and taking note of how I live my life. They see how you react during troublesome times, not just when you’re holding a trophy. They see that my happiness isn’t based on my golf scores; it’s based on knowing Jesus and knowing that he has saved me.

Another thing I want them to see is that you don’t have to sacrifice your competitiveness just because you’re a Christian. Believe me, it hurts when you miss a cut. It hurts when you don’t finish a tournament strong. If we didn’t have that, if I wasn’t upset at the end of a bad day, I think there would be something wrong with me, because I wouldn’t have the competitiveness to come out the next time and do it better. But the big picture of the whole thing is that you’ve got to learn from those difficult times. And there’s no doubt in my mind that a life lived with Jesus gives you the perspective to be able to do that.

I started telling you my story by looking back to those first, carefree days of learning the game. Thanks to my kids, I’m actually returning to those roots somewhat. I don’t practice like I used to. Part of that is age. I’m not out to learn new tricks. I’ve got habits and I go with it. But I also learned pretty quickly after the boys came along and I had to cut back on my practice sessions that it wasn’t killing me to take it easier. In fact, I played better. I was grinding too hard and not playing the game so much.

Even though I was a mathematics major, I’ve also never worried much about my statistics. Maybe at the end of the year I’ll look back and see something that could use improvement. But if I get to looking at statistical categories too closely mid-year, I tend to focus on the negatives. I can be standing over a putt that the stats say I usually will miss and say to myself, “I’m not supposed to make this. I’m not very good in this department.”

All in all, maybe I’m giving less attention to my game than I thought I would be at this point in my career. But I take a different approach with my life. I am trying to reflect day-to-day, recognizing things like I’m not praying as much as I think I am or as much as I think I should be. I’m catching myself. Am I reading the Bible? Am I committed to growing in my faith? With these kinds of questions, I feel like there is only room for improvement, only positives that can come out of it. I don’t overdo it, because if I get too involved and try to overhaul everything at once, that becomes overwhelming and I end up doing almost nothing well.

I tell young golfers who aspire to make it that there are sacrifices that they will need to make to succeed at a high level. They have a bigger goal in mind than a lot of their friends. But I also tell them that bouncing back from hardships is what builds character. You just do a disservice to yourself if you pout and walk away from a bad round and slam your clubs and just forget about it, thinking tomorrow will be a better day. You need to learn from those low points how you can get better.

But you can also never miss the good stuff. I keep a diary of the greatest shots I’ve ever hit. After every round I play, I write down three or four of my favorite drives and iron shots and putts. That way I can dwell on those good times and remember all the good things I do in the game. Maybe that sounds like the way a kid would approach the game. Maybe, of all the things I’ve learned, a kid’s way isn’t so bad. Meet me at the sixth hole?


  • Mark Wilson

    5 PGA Tour Wins: 2007 Honda Classic, 2009 Mayakoba Golf Classic, 2011 Sony Open, 2011 Waste Management Phoenix Open, 2012 Humana Challenge