Countdown to Valhalla: The Ryder rookie
Next week Oliver Wilson enters the biennial bear pit as the first golfer without a professional victory to play for Europe and an 'anxiety-ridden swing' not entirely cured by coaching surgery. James Corrigan reports
Perhaps they are not the steps most little boys joyously walk up in their sporting dreams, but when Oliver Wilson lifts foot off tarmac at Heathrow on Monday he will know he is at last living out the fantasy of a small lad in Mansfield.
"It's one of the Ryder Cup images, isn't it?" he said. "The team going up the stairs into the plane and turning around to have their picture taken, all lined up in their uniforms. I've seen myself in that photo for so long that it will be weird when I'm actually there for real. And all the other images, too. Of the players on stage at the opening ceremony, of the scene around the first tee, on the 18th green and then, of course, of all those celebrations on Sunday night. You've seen those images so many times that you sort of know what to expect. At least you hope you do. Maybe, I don't know what I'm letting myself in for."
In the event of another blue and gold victory, this Ryder rookie clearly believes he will also know what to expect – a phalanx of Americans heading to the nearest sand trap to bury their heads. Again. He saw his college mates do it when a student at August State and he believed he has seen the American team, themselves, do it in the wake of their last two record drubbings. If Paul Azinger and Co were hoping that Wilson would be one of those timid debutants who tiptoe into the biennial dust-up like a church mouse into a bear pit the following comments will put them straight. They might feel rather too straight.
"We used to have parties when I was in college over there and there was good banter with the Americans," recalled Wilson. "But it's strange. They expect to win because they're the 'greatest country in the world', obviously. But when they don't it's 'our guys suck'.
"I remember the last time. I think America wanted to analyse why they lost – 'Well, it's all about team camaraderie, Europe has more camaraderie'. That's ridiculous. They could have had 10 Tiger Woods and they weren't going to win. They might have admitted that to themselves, but they didn't really seem to want to admit that to anyone else. The quality of Europe's golf was unbeatable, really.
"That's what I find funny about the American side when they've lost the last few. They're always looking for a reason, they're looking for this golden answer, but there isn't one. It's simply the fact they were outplayed. I'm not sure they realise that or not. I suppose it's tough, as everyone wants an answer. They want to blame the captain, but it's not the captain out there. Yeah, he can do things to help, but at the end of the day it's the players. And the way Europe played was incredible. I want to be around that level of excellence and to be a part of that."
Wilson is already a part of it and a rather historic part he is, too. In the 30 years since Great Britain and Ireland became Europe, never before has a player without a professional victory to his name appeared on the team. The 27-year-old is aware of all the implications that will inevitably raise, although he claims "not to be bothered one bit. I have had four second places this season and am content with that. Sure, I want the win but I just don't want the one – I want 10, 20. That's why I find what Padraig [Harrington] has done so inspirational. He had 20-odd runner-ups in getting to where is now and my coach Pete [Cowen] always tells me how much I'm like him and how my rate of improvement can be the same. All I can say is that I feel I'm ready for the Ryder Cup. I didn't feel that at the start of the season. But I do now."
Wilson's journey to Valhalla has seemingly been filled with such moments of insecurity and he repeatedly points out that without living through them he would not be on Nick Faldo's team. There have been days of true courage, such as when he walked out of a geography A level class and left school there and then at the age of 17 to concentrate on the game that had become his obsession since being shunted off Derby County's books by a skiing accident.
Yet in golfing terms, nothing is braver than ripping it up and starting all over, particularly when your old swing had been good enough to gain you a scholarship at an American college and from there a spot on a Walker Cup team. True, Faldo's own reinvention was markedly more of a gamble – being undertaken when he was near the top of the European game – but Wilson's overhaul can be described as "Faldoesque", nevertheless. "It was October 2003," he said, "I was just turning professional and, although I knew I was good enough to get my card, I also knew that'd be about it. Everything was improving, but under pressure I couldn't hit the shots. I had an outrageous pull.
"So I went to see [the coach] Mitchell Spearman. On the first day he watched me hit a few, then stopped me and said, 'And you've just played the Walker Cup?' I said "Yeah, what's the problem?' And he just laughed. He made me hit balls for half an hour and then took apart my swing on the video. I suddenly recognised it was awful, just awful. It was a very tense and anxiety-ridden swing which I still show the odd sign of now."
"We began again, but for up to five months I would try to play and would have to walk in, sometimes after a hole, saying, 'I can't do this'. It got better but even when I was on the Challenge Tour I was getting used to it."
That made his immediate promotion from the European Tour's feeder league that much more admirable. But, as ever with Wilson, it was not a stroll. "I was 13th going into the last event in France and with the first 15 gaining their card I thought I should be OK. But then I shot a third -round 76 and that was easily the worst night of my life. I didn't sleep. I was in tears. I was on the phone to my girlfriend for about six hours. All that work, I thought, done the tubes, although I was probably the lucky one. I had a bit of backing but some of those on the Challenge Tour are playing from one tournament to the next, knowing that one bad round and it's all over. Now that's pressure. That whole experience really helped me at Gleneagles."
Wilson arrived at the Johnnie Walker Championship two weeks ago, again with the most obvious target on his back. Occupying the last automatic place in the Ryder Cup standings, the "anxiety-ridden swing" was in full, destructive evidence as he struggled to make the cut. But as Wilson drew on his past tortures to turn it around and, in the group behind, the young German Martin Kaymer imploded, missing a short putt to make the cut on the last that effectively guaranteed it for Wilson. "And d'you know what the incredible thing was?" said Wilson. "It was Martin's reaction. He'd just given in his scorecard and I was 50 yards up the path talking to some friends and he just marched right on up, hand out, with a big smile on his face, congratulating me. It was so genuine. I would like to think I'd do the same, but I don't think I could come across that sincere. It was remarkable and stood out among all the other messages I received."
There happened to be hundreds of those – "by the Monday, my phone was dead" – and Wilson decided to take shelter for a while with his long-term partner, Lauren, whom he had met while in Augusta. He spoke to Faldo a couple of times, talked a little to Phil Price, the archetypal one-Cup wonder who so memorably beat Phil Mickelson in 2002, but otherwise Wilson kept his head down. He re-emerged in midweek to do a series of interviews at the Soho offices of Red Bull, the energy drink he promotes, and was understandably determined to give off the aura of "I'm ready".
If only the same could be said about the rest of the Wilson family. "My parents make me laugh because they're so nervous," he said. "My mum always is but my dad is usually quite straightforward – 'you didn't play very well today'. Now he doesn't even want to talk about it, skirting the issue, talking about anything but Valhalla. It'll be funny watching them in the gallery. Mum will be 30 yards ahead of dad, living every shot, unable to say anything to anyone, and he'll just be white. I've said to them, 'Look, you can't keep this up, I'm going to be playing in hundreds of important tournaments. If you're like this every time, you'll both have a heart attack.' I better have a good week in Kentucky just for their health's sake."
The Wilson bag Fact file
Age: 27 (born 14 September 1980).
Height: 5ft 11in.
Hobbies: Sport, music and fitness, and is a supporter of Dare UK, an anti-drugs charity.
Education: Walked out of school in A level year to play golf and never went back. Later acquired a scholarship to Augusta State University in Georgia.
Career: First person to be chosen to play for the European Ryder Cup team without previously winning a professional tournament.
Best finish: Second (BMW European PGA Championship).