Good Things Started With Wilson

Could Illinois suddenly be emerging as a hotbed for PGA Tour players? That seems unlikely, but look what happened in the first few weeks of the PGA Tour and Senior PGA Tour seasons.

Mark Wilson, an Elmhurst resident, won the Sony Open in Hawaii in the PGA Tour’s first full-field tournament of 2011, then captured the Waste Management Phoenix Open in his third start.

Wilson, who wanted to keep playing, ran out of gas in his next tournament — the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Still, no problem.

D.A. Points, raised in Pekin and a collegiate star at the University of Illinois, won his first PGA Tour event at Pebble Beach. Not only did he win the pro event, he teamed with comedian Bill Murray, who grew up in Wilmette, to capture the pro-am division.

And then there was Jeff Sluman. The long-time Burr Ridge resident was at the top of the leaderboard in the Champions Tour’s Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, Fla., until Tom Lehman rolled in a birdie putt on the final green. Sluman wound up as the runner-up on the same day that Points and Murray celebrated their victories.

When the dust had cleared Wilson, off his two victories, and Points stood one-two in the FedEx Cup standings, making them — at the moment — the front-runners for the $10 million bonus that’ll be paid out after the PGA Tour’s playoff series concludes in October.

Wilson shot three 72s and missed the cut at Pebble Beach, but he’ll likely be heard from again. He committed to the eight tournaments that immediately followed his win at Phoenix. And both he and Points qualified for their first Masters appearance in April.

So, chances of both being heard from again soon appear good.

“I see the snowstorm in Chicago and it’s like, why go back there?” Wilson said after beating Jason Dufner in a two-hole Monday playoff at TPC Scottsdale. “There’s no reason. I’m just enjoying the ride, and I’ll ride this train as long as I can.”

Wilson, 36, earned his first berth in April’s Masters with his victory in Hawaii and his second win got him into the World Match Play Championship as well as a World Golf Championship stop at Doral in Miami. Getting into those big money events drastically changed Wilson’s schedule..

“I’ll play through Bay Hill, then take the week off before the Masters,” he said.

Two of the other stops before the Masters are the Honda Classic, which Wilson won in 2007, and the Mayakoba Classic, which he won in 2009. Those were Wilson’s only PGA Tour wins prior to his explosion in the last three weeks.

Wilson grew up in Menominee Falls, Wis., and is an avid Packers’ fan. But he and his wife Amy settled in the Chicago area several years ago. The couple and their two young children, Lane and Cole, are enjoying life on the road now but when he’s not on tour he practices regularly at Cog Hill in Lemont.

Both of Wilson’s recent wins came in tournaments with schedule difficulties. He needed to play 36 holes on the final day in Hawaii and frost delays created a rare Monday finish in Phoenix. Because of the frost he played four holes on Thursday, 28 on Friday, four on Saturday, 30 on Sunday and six (two in the playoff) on Monday.

A nine-foot birdie putt enabled Wilson to finish off Dufner, a champion in Chicago in 2006 when he won the Nationwide Tour’s LaSalle Bank Open at The Glen Club. The win hoisted Wilson’s world ranking from 91 to 51. He ended last season as No. 230.

The Packers’ run to the Super Bowl was a distraction during his win at Phoenix.

“The saddest thing was that I couldn’t watch the first half,” said Wilson, who played until dark on Sunday. Still, he had a green and gold visor made up especially for Super Bowl week and also wore a “Cheese-head” hat during breaks between tournament rounds.

Points, meanwhile, has deeper Illinois roots.

“I grew up on the 17th hole of the local country club in (Pekin) Illinois and both my parents played and taught me the game,” he told the media in California. “To win on the PGA Tour, especially at Pebble Beach with Bill Murray — I don’t think I could even dream it up.”

The key to Points’ win came at the 14th hole of the final round, when he holed a 107-yard gap wedge for eagle. Playing with the always-clowning Murray was no problem.

“Everybody all week kept saying `you got the short end of the stick playing with Murray, He’s so crazy,”’ said Points. “I never felt that way. I kept think, why does everyone get so worked up thinking he’s this big distraction? I tried to embrace it.”