Oliver Wilson may be a Masters debutant this year, but he knows the course well because he was at college in Augusta. Here, the Ryder Cup star talks about what he expects…
When I first thought about going on a golf scholarship to an American University, there seemed only one place to go. I assumed that if you wanted to play golf, you couldn’t do better than go to Augusta State, home to the Masters Tournament, home to Augusta National.
As a student in the golf team, we were invited by the members to play the National once a year. So, I’ve been lucky enough to tee it up four times (between 2000 and 2003) shooting 79, 73, 76 and 72. It is a magical place and will always be very close to my heart; and after I left University I bought a house in the city, which I have only recently sold.
Having said that, I got a bit of a shock when I first arrived. My luggage was lost on the way over, so after I was met at the airport by my coach (whom I had only spoken to on the phone) I found myself the next day in a shirt and jeans teeing it up on our own college course, Forest Hills. The greens were all long and thick, and even the range balls were crap. I have to admit I suddenly thought ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’
But, it’s amazing in this part of the world how fast they can get courses looking immaculate. Within a couple of weeks our course was almost like the National.
To be honest, going to University there was the best thing I ever did. I had the most amazing time and I certainly wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now if I hadn’t gone.
The apartments we stayed in were literally a wedge from Augusta’s famous 13th fairway, through the trees. One of the first things they told us when we arrived was that if we were having a party, then going “over the fence” onto the course was not an option. It would have been quite easy to climb the fence if you’d wanted to, and I’m sure if it had been in Britain, people would have done. But, there were always stories going around that if you tried it, you’d be shot by one of the State Troopers who patrol the grounds!
Certain people said they knew of guys who’d swum up Rae’s Creek at night and played the 12th, but I’m not sure how true that was. The wire fence around the course goes down into the water, and soon after these rumours arose, we heard stories that the members had put water moccasins in the Creek! Besides, there was no need to jump the fence, because each year, in the early spring, our invitation would arrive. From this moment onwards, we would be looking at the weather forecast, having side-bets and treating it as a ‘Major’. Then, when the day finally arrived, we’d be up stupid-early, ironing our college uniforms and arrive as early as we could. We’d take about 10 minutes just to go down Magnolia Drive, with everyone leaning out the sun-roof taking pictures.
Everyone talks about how the first thing that strikes you are how big the slopes and hills really are, but I was struck by the wide open spaces. I remember walking out the clubhouse under the famous oak tree and being open-mouth-amazed at the huge area of green lush grass. When there is no one there, no gallery, no tournament, that’s what hits you. To the right of the 18th, which comes up the hill, is just a massive bit of lush, open ground. It takes your breath away, and you could build three holes there if you wanted.
In the morning we’d play the par-3 course (such a great warm-up for the big course). Then we’d have lunch, look around the clubhouse and all the memorabilia. And then, we’d be let loose on the real thing.
I pretty much remember every shot I have hit around there; my first bogey (the 1st), my first birdie (the 2nd) and the first time they let us bounce the ball across the water at the 16th (my ball plugged in the bank in front of the green). But, my best round was probably in 2002 when I shot 76.
It was really windy that day, and my room-mate, Jayce Stepp (who always struggled to beat me) found himself four shots in front with four holes to play. We were playing for $5, as we always did; but I finished birdie, birdie, birdie, par to beat him by one, which was immensely satisfying.
Augusta tests every facet of your game, but at the end of the day, it’s your short game which comes under the most rigorous scrutiny. The slopes and the speed of the greens mean you’ve got to have the most amazing touch. They will take some getting used to after playing in Europe, but fortunately for me, fast, undulating greens are what I like best.
To hit chips close (often from tight lies) your distance control has to be absolutely perfect. What people don’t realise from watching on the TV is that if you don’t quite strike a chip absolutely perfectly, your ball could end up miles from the hole or even in the water. The toughest green on the whole course is the 14th, though the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 9th, not to mention a handful on the back nine are not far behind. I’ve heard through the grapevine they’ve got a new pin position on the 5th for this year, which is just tucked over the ridge on the left. By all accounts, it’s brutal.
My favourite holes are the 15th and 16th. I’m thinking about playing the 15th as a three-shotter this year, because to turn that tee shot that much from right to left doesn’t suit my game.
It’s going to be very strange going back there this April because it’s such a different course now with all the extra length. Thankfully, it’s also the case that I’m a much better player now than I was at college. I’m hoping when I get there, I will suddenly think “this isn’t as hard as I used to think it was”. One of the toughest things to get your head around is that so many of the shots you remember from watching the TV are bad ones into water. You’ve got to try and get those out of your head before you get there. I’m going to go up a few times before the Masters week because that week is going to be pretty mad for me, being an alumni.
I’m staying in a house near the course, and I’ll rent a house for my parents and for my fiancée Lauren’s mum and dad. A lot of my close friends are coming to watch and I still know a lot of people living in Augusta. Because I don’t think I’m going to be able to catch up with everyone during the week, I might stay on for a week after it’s all over.
The town gets a bad rap, which I think is very unfair. It’s a quiet town rather than a big city; but I quite like that. There’s not loads of places to go to entertain yourself, but it’s a sleepy Southern place and you soon get to know loads of the people living there. I quite like that, too.
Certainly going to University there to play golf was fantastic. We didn’t have a football team, like most American colleges do, so everyone in the town took a huge interest in the golf team. The first week I was there I had to do a TV interview and I was like “what’s all this for?”
Wilson's Augusta State playing days (below) give him a big advantage in his Masters debut:
Then, that night, I was on the local news network. People would know who you were and would ask about the golf in supermarkets.
Every year, come tournament week, we’d go on the Monday practice day and then try to pick up tickets for the rest of the week. Our apartment was so close to the course, you could walk around the back of the 16th green, across the 5th fairway and be sitting on our couch in our front room in five minutes. And then it was weird because you’d be watching the TV and suddenly, from our veranda, you’d hear a huge roar. Moments later, someone would be holing an eagle putt on the screen.
Looking back on my time at Augusta State, I’m relieved the thought of jumping over fences illegally to play the National never seriously entered my head.
I’m not sure I’d be able to live with myself if I had legitimately qualified (as I’ve finally managed to do this year) and then been told by the Green Jackets that I couldn’t play in it, because of some misdemeanour as a student!
Date of birth: September 14, 1980
Residence: Weybridge, Surrey.
Attachment: Coxmoor Golf Club.
Turned pro: 2003
Teams: 2009 Royal Trophy, 2008 Ryder Cup, 2007 Seve Trophy.
Order of Merit:
2nd (2009), 11th (2008), 30th (2007), 71st (2006), 97th (2005).
Best finish: Eight second places, the most recent of which was in a play-off at the HSBC Champions to Sergio Garcia last November.
My goals for Augusta…
Obviously, I want to make the cut and be around for the weekend and sometimes I think I’d be happy with a top-20 finish in my first Masters. But, then again, there’s another side to me which knows I am good enough to do better than that.
Learning the course…
There used to be a theory that you couldn’t do well at Augusta until you’d played it for several years, but I think that’s not quite so true nowadays. Luke Donald was 3rd in his first Masters and I played a lot of college golf with Brandt Snedeker, who was 3rd in his first one as a pro last year.
Coming second on tour eight times…
I’m disappointed I haven’t won yet, not least because it’s all the press want to talk to me about; but I don’t have any doubts that I will win. When I look back on my career, I want to be in double digits in wins. I’ve reached the stage now where I wouldn’t be surprised if my first win was a Major, and I’m even preparing myself for that.
A place for thrills and spills...
As a student I had a bit of a reputation for winning tournaments by chipping in, and of playing outrageous shots at crucial times; and it’s a shame I haven’t been able to do that as a pro as yet. But, if there’s one place that lends itself to that sort of shot-making, it’s the back nine at Augusta.
This interview originally appeared in the April issue of Golf World.