Wagner copying Wilson, and that's just fine with him

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February 01, 2012
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnson Wagner won't lie. He likes seeing Mark Wilson hoist trophies on Sunday, and not just because the two have become good friends over the years.

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Wagner actually has something of an ulterior motive. He seems to be following in Wilson's footsteps -- winning the Mayakoba Golf Classic at Riviera Maya-Cancun two years after his friend did, then capturing the Sony Open in Hawaii a year later, as well.

"And hopefully I'll win this week," said Wagner, grinning and still sporting the mustache he made famous in Hawaii. "I just want him to win more so I can continue winning them a year or two after he does."

Wilson, who opens the defense of his Waste Management Phoenix Open title on Thursday, chuckled when he heard what Wagner had said. "So now I need to win Houston or something like that," Wilson said, referring to Wagner's breakthrough victory in 2008.

Their careers, at least in the last two years, have been strikingly similar -- and not just because their names are engraved on the same trophy.

Wilson's hot start in 2011, where he won two of his first three starts, produced a dramatic rise in the Official World Golf Ranking. He had started last season ranked 234th, then moved to 90th with his win in Hawaii and 51st after he captured the Waste Management Phoenix Open title.

Wagner, meanwhile, was 220th in the world when he teed off at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January. He jumped 128 spots when he spoiled Wilson's title defense at Waialae the following week and a tie for second at the Humana Challenge the next week propelled Wagner to 68th.

Wagner also rose to the top of the FedExCup standings with his win in Hawaii -- just as Wilson did in 2011. Interestingly, Wilson currently ranks third in the FedExCup after his win two weeks ago at the Humana Challenge and he'll play the first two rounds at TPC Scottsdale with Wagner and Brandt Snedeker, who clocks in at No. 2.

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"Mark's been a big inspiration for me this offseason," Wagner said. "Just the way he started last year and how he improved his work ranking and how it turned around so quickly. So I thought a lot about that, and I've told him that. He's such a good guy, and it's nice to have friends like that on TOUR."

The red-hot start in 2011 opened up a lot of doors for Wilson, just as Wagner's surge a year later has done for him. Wilson got to play in his first Masters and British Open, and he was a virtual lock to make the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola before he even left the West Coast. Wagner now has a good shot making the first two World Golf Championships for the first time in his career.

At the same time, Wilson acknowledges he may have gotten a little ahead of himself last year. Turns out, he only had two more top-10s in 2011.

"It's kind of what Bob Rotella always told me: if you think of yourself as a top 125 player then you're always gonna finish around there," Wilson said. "Here I win two tournaments and I was just trying to look at that number to get into Atlanta and it was a mistake.

"So I think that will help me in the future. There's another first I've crossed off my list. I don't have to worry about doing that again. Being there is great and all but I'd much rather win a couple more tournaments than be in Atlanta. That's what we really play for -- that feeling on Sunday when you have a chance to win and finding out whether you're going to pull it off or not.""

Off the course, both Wilson and Wagner are family men with two young children. On the course, even with their early season success, the two pros generally fly under the radar. Their games are strikingly similar, too, predicated on accuracy rather than length, as well as solid putting.

Both players have become more comfortable in their own skin in the last few years. Maybe it's the wisdom that comes with age. Maybe it's learning to play within their abilities in order to maximize their potential.

"I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel every week like I was when I was 30 years old," Wilson explained. "There was always a new swing thought, a new putting thought, a new chipping thought. Let's go try that this week and see how it works. I don't do that anymore, I just do the same things over and over again.

"My idol growing up were guys like Ben Hogan, but now my idol I think is Bruce Lietzke. I don't want to misquote him, but I thought I remember him saying, he doesn't want to get better, he wants to stay the same, and what I think he means by that is if he hits a 7-iron 160, he doesn't want to get stronger and all of a sudden start hitting it 165 because then he's going to be 15 feet past the hole.

"I didn't understand what he meant when he said that when I was a teenager growing up, but now I get it now that I'm in my 30s. Just keep doing what I'm doing, and also not get down maybe by a failure."

Wilson now has won three times in the last 13 months while Wagner has won twice in 10. Only Wilson's fellow cheesehead, Steve Stricker, can boast as many wins in the same time frame after picking up a win in this year's season-opener on Maui. The Ryder Cup -- Wagner currently ranks third and Wilson fifth -- is a very real possibility as long as both stay focused.

"I think in year's past I've gotten way ahead of myself with goals," Wagner said. "My goal starting the year was to try to get better every day and play as good as I can in every tournament -- whatever that finish may be. The first three weeks of this year I finished the best that I could every week. I played great, really grinded it out and stayed patient and played the best I could every week.

"Last year I had one tournament where I could say I finished as high as I possibly could've and that was Mayakoba. So I think my goal this year is to turn my top-25s into top-10s and top-10s into top-5s and hopefully get a couple of wins. Getting ahead of myself thinking about Ryder Cup is a good way to miss that team. But if I can just stay focused on why I had success early this year Ryder Cup will take care of itself."

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