AUGUSTA, Ga. — The putt does not always have to fall for a story to end happily. Sometimes the reward is in the journey. Sometimes the payoff is in the memory.
Just ask the golfer walking off the 18th green of Augusta National late Thursday afternoon. The one with no sponsor on his visor and no magic in his bag. Steve Wilson shot an opening-round 79 at the Masters, which put him behind 90 of the 96 golfers on the course. He has little chance of making the cut, and no prayer of making history.
And still, the day will count among the very best of his life. I mean, how often does a guy go from the deli counter of a Mississippi gas station to the first tee of the world's greatest golf tournament?
"If he never does anything more in golf after this, I think he'll be fine with that," his older brother Dave Wilson said. "This is enough."
Chances are, you never heard of Steve Wilson before this week, but you probably know his type: a pretty good golfer around town who, word has it, might have even been something back in the day.
That was Wilson, who thought he hit the big time when he was a star at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College 20 years ago. And that was Wilson, who for a decade fancied himself as a pro prospect before reality kicked in. And that was Wilson, who until recently had abandoned golf to raise a family and go into business as co-owner of a couple of gas stations.
"He played on the mini- tours until I ran out of money," his father, Tom Wilson, said. "I was a retired Air Force sergeant, so I couldn't afford to build him a green and a sand trap in the back yard like Phil Mickelson's dad did.
"It was always up to him. If I had more money, he would have made it here a lot sooner. Instead, he did it all by himself. And that makes it a lot better."
Steve Wilson is 39 now, and among the most unlikely participants the Masters has known. This is not the U.S. Open, with its numerous qualifiers for club pros and other dreamers. This is not some PGA Tour stop with sponsor's exemptions.
Augusta National is certainly not shy about keeping its doors closed to pretenders. Five amateurs qualified for this year's Masters, and four are up-and-comers between 18 and 21. And then there is Wilson.
A guy who has busied himself the past few years playing in four-man scrambles and forgettable tournaments around Mississippi. That was until he won the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship in September and earned a Masters invitation.
He went from making po' boy sandwiches at his BP station in Gautier, Miss. — roast beef with gravy for $5.59 plus tax — to driving to Augusta at every opportunity to get in as many practice rounds as possible.
And there he was Thursday morning, in a threesome with former Masters champion Tom Watson and Ian Poulter. Wilson was happily chatting with fans when Gary Martin, his caddie and gas station business partner, saw Watson gesturing to them. They were literally moments away from his 11:29 a.m. tee time and were still on the putting green.
"I said, 'Steve, I think we have to go now,' " Martin said, shaking his head. "It's a good thing we were shooting third, because if he was first, we might not have made it on time."
As it was, the round began well enough, with Wilson nailing his first drive down the middle of the fairway. By the time he was walking up to the third green, he looked to his left and saw his name on the giant lead- erboard. It was sandwiched between Padraig Harrington and Tiger Woods.
"Yeah," Wilson later said, grinning, "we're all about the same."
Slowly the course began to bite him. He was 1 over through four holes before getting bogeys on three of the next four. When he got a birdie at No. 16, he might have entertained thoughts of making the cut. But then he missed a short birdie putt at No. 17 and went into the trees for double bogey at No. 18.
"It's a lot of pressure that just doesn't stop," Wilson said. "It's like your hands are always shaking. You don't want everybody to see that, so you speed things up and hit before you're really comfortable."
Once upon a time, Wilson gave up his dream to be a pro golfer. The kid who used to hit little plastic balls for hours at a time had a little boy of his own and decided it was time to move on.
Now, just about a decade later, Wilson is in the Masters. And in Wednesday's par-3 contest, his 9-year-old son, Gavan, served as his caddie and took over the putter on the final hole.
"I'm sure in some ways it was difficult for him to give up on golf," his wife, Shelly Wilson, said. "But he's always said he never had any regrets. Once our son was born, he wanted to be there to see him grow up. That was more important to him."
This isn't the way Wilson once imagined it. Not making his PGA Tour debut until he was nearly 40. Not shooting a 79 in his first round in the Masters. Not knowing whether he would ever play a tour event again.
No, this wasn't quite the way Steve Wilson dreamed of it as a child. But, by the end of the day, it was close enough.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]