JACKSON, Miss. -- When reigning champion Trevor Immelman tees it up at Augusta National in the Masters, the pinnacle of professional golf worldwide, and when Tiger Woods, now fully recovered from knee surgery, comes prowling after him, Mississippi Gulf Coast resident Steve Wilson won't be far behind.
Or perhaps he'll be ahead. On the scoreboard that is.
Wilson, 38, qualified for the Masters by winning the USGA's 2008 Men's Mid-Am Championship played at Brown Deer Golf Club and Milwaukee Country Club in Wisconsin. Since then he's played four practice rounds at Augusta National, thanks to the tournament's gracious policy of allowing qualifying players to play as many practice rounds as they'd like prior to the Masters.
"It's extremely long and extremely difficult," said Wilson, who lives in Ocean Springs, Miss., and has 10 career holes in one. "But I'm building some confidence and learning where I can hit and miss it. I'm fairly long so that's definitely a plus there, and the greens are really, really quick which I like."
Wilson's best thus far at Augusta National is a 75. He hopes to play four more practice rounds between now and Masters Week, which runs Monday, April 6-12, and he holds high hopes.
"I'd like to make the cut," says Wilson, a gas station owner who is married to wife Shelly with a son, Gavin, "and ultimately finish in the top 16 so I can go back next year."
Wilson, who won the Mississippi State Amateur Championship in 2007, played college golf at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and Southern Mississippi. He played on the mini-tours for 10 years before deciding to regain his amateur status.
Wilson remembers well his first drive up Magnolia Lane for his first practice round.
"It was incredible… one of the few times something lived up to all that everyone says it is."
He'll go to Augusta National the Saturday before tournament week - the first day qualifiers can arrive and begin their tournament week practice rounds.
But not before friends, peers and family hold a fundraiser on March 11 for him at Sunkist Country Club in Biloxi, Miss. Named the "Road to Augusta Invitational," all proceeds from the event will go to Wilson's Masters Week expenses, which could run nearly $10,000.
"I didn't want them to do this, I felt funny about it, but someone told me, 'By them doing this they feel like a part of it.' That's true, and that helped me put things in perspective," said Wilson, who pointed out that any funds left will go to area junior golf.
Wilson plays most often at the Davis Love III-designed Shell Landing Golf Club in Gautier. He says that course and the collection of other top-notch tracks on the Mississippi Gulf Coast have helped him become a very good player.
"Fallen Oak, Grand Bear, The Preserve… they're as good as almost anywhere I've played."
Except for perhaps Augusta National.
Notes: The University of Mississippi's Ole Miss Golf Course in Oxford was recognized by Golf Inc. magazine in its January 2009 issue for excellence in the international publication's annual "Renovation of the Year" competition.
The facility reopened last fall following a massive "re-do" that improved and enlarged the course. More improvements, including a new pro shop and putting area, were also recently completed.
The course had been closed for nearly a year, and renovation efforts included green complexes rebuilt to USGA specifications, fairways sprigged with 419 Bermuda grass, new cart paths, a fleet of 60 new electric golf carts, a state-of-the-art 900 sprinkler head irrigation system capable of pumping out more than 850,000 gallons of water a night, rebuilt sand bunkers and the addition of back tees on several holes, pushing the course to more than 7,000 yards in length. Also, the driving range was doubled in size. Watermark Golf LLC/Nathan Crace Design was responsible for the $3.5 million renovation project.
Besides the course, other items in the renovation effort included a new pro shop with a grill, complete with a drive-through window and dining area. A new driveway to the course, short-game putting area, exterior signage, new tee markers and hole signs were also added.
The Pro Shop is open 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. For more information, visit http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/golf, or call 662-234-4816.
Dan Shepherd, Buffalo Communications