OLIVER Wilson is known as a nearly man thanks to his nine runners-up spots on the European Tour; there are a lot of players who would welcome that kind of record.
The 31-year-old has enjoyed seven first-class years on tour, with 26 top-10 finishes culminating in the highlight three years ago – the Ryder Cup.
In 2008 he became the first European ever to qualify for the team without winning a tournament. At Valhalla, Nick Faldo granted him just two outings. In one, he took down the Phil Mickelson-Anthony Kim pairing in the Saturday foursomes. He then lost to an inspired Boo Weekley in the singles.
A year later he almost won two WGC events, narrowly missed out at the Dunhill Links, notched top-25 finishes in three Majors, and was 7th in the inaugural Race to Dubai standings. He was also a fixture in the world’s top 50.
However, he has since fallen off the radar. Now well outside the world’s top 50, and still without a win, NCG spoke to the Mansfield native to find out how he plans to turn his fortunes around.
You had a fantastic run of form up to 2009 but not much since then. What has happened?
It’s a collective thing. There have been a few things that have culminated and affected my form. Over the past six months I’ve been ill and it’s affected my game.
What is the illness?
It’s been an issue more than a few times this year and it looks like it is a combination of infections and parasites I picked up last year from drinking contaminated water. I also got a stomach ulcer this year. The main side effects of the illnesses has been fatigue – I’ve not been able to practise as hard or as often as I want to as I get really tired. I’ve worn myself out at a few tournaments this year.
When can we expect to see you fit and well again?
I’m not quite over it yet but I’m pretty much there. I’m starting to feel much better and more energetic.
When will you be back in contention then?
If only I knew! In the next few weeks my health should return and I’m back in the gym now putting in more hours so it’s all coming together again. I’ve got a lot of ground to make up.
I’m still implementing some swing changes, too, which has been hard – especially in Europe where it’s so windy and difficult to work on new things.
What have you been working on?
A few different things. Improving my pivot, trying to shorten my swing. It sounds simple, but it really isn’t – there are so many subtleties.
The shot that always scare me is the pull but I’m trying to hit the ball longer and more consistently. My short game is good and my iron play is improving, but my driver needs sorting. My good shots are good but my bad shots are poor.
What was it like to play in the Ryder Cup?
It was incredible. Apart from winning Majors it’s the thing everyone wants to play in and win. Making the team without needing a wildcard was a dream. I felt I had earned my place. I was disappointed not to play more – especially as I was in such good form – but that’s how it goes when you make your debut.
To go through what he went through then play so well in Asia the week after – then win the US Open in the style he did shows just how good Rory is. What did you think of Sir Nick Faldo’s captaincy?
Well, we lost. I don’t really want to go into that too much but he tried his best and at the end of the day it comes down to the players and we didn’t do well enough as a team. It was a bit of a shame.
Was there any added pressure playing in front of the US fans?
Not really. Obviously it helps having a home crowd when they’re very vocal and it can be hard if it’s against you, but it was a good atmosphere, I thought.
Any advice for prospective rookies at Medinah in 2012?
One of the best things I did was build up the first tee shot in my head so when I got out there it wasn’t as bad as I thought. The atmosphere was so incredible that it didn’t matter that it was against us. It was just fun to be there. You’ve got to laugh it off and get on with your game.
Are Europe big favourites going into the 2012 matches?
Well, at the moment you would have to think so. It’s never easy going in as favourites though as it doesn’t work out well.
How confident are you of making the team?
It’s a long way away yet so I think I have a good chance. A great chance. There’s a lot to play for and lots of big events and, the way golf is, a good run could get you into the world top 10 quickly.
How well do you know Jose Maria Olazabal?
I’ve spoken to him quite a lot and we have a good relationship. He’s very easy to talk to. We’ve had a few courtesy cars together and he always asks about my game.
I played in the Royal Trophy with him and all the players have massive respect for him.
Will he be a good captain?
I think he’ll be great. He’s got so much emotion and respect from all the players. I’ve been round him enough and seen it. When he talks he is so emotional and passionate and the players pick up on that. He’ll do a great job.
Is it fair to say your game best suits American courses? You’ve had most of your best results over there.
I think so. I love firm, fast greens and more often than not that’s what you get over there. You also have to manage your game better, which I like. You need to think about angles into greens and putt and chip well. I’m able to get up and down when a lot of guys can’t – so that’s a reason. I love US golf. It’s fun, there’s a lot of definition to the courses and they’re usually really tough. Plus, it’s always nice to play in the sun.
Would you ever join the PGA Tour?
I had the opportunity three years ago and last year because I’d earned enough money but I turned it down to focus on Ryder Cup qualification. I thought I had a better chance in Europe. Obviously I missed out so it would have been interesting if I’d have known that at the time. I’m not sure what I’d have done. My wife is American and we have a home over there so I’d be happy in the States. I love playing in Europe, though. I don’t know what will happen down the line but I definitely want to play in the Majors and WGC events there.
What do you think of European golf right now?
Fantastic – has it ever been stronger? I know there was the golden era with Faldo, Seve, Sandy, Woosie and Langer, but there wasn’t the depth there is now. We’ve got the World No. 1, and loads of players in the top 10. I hope it is going to last longer and I really want to be part of it. It inspires me to get back in there.
You went to university in Georgia near Augusta. What made you choose there?
A mate of mine got a scholarship over there but he wasn’t allowed into the country. When he came back he’d lost the scholarship so he called me up and told me to give them a try. I’d never thought about it so I called them. I had a few friends on that team anyway so I called them and took a chance. It turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done. I played on the same team as Jamie Elson and Scott Jamieson and we had a really successful team.
The town is very small and the golf team was so successful that we were almost famous – people used to come and talk to us about golf in restaurants! Augusta gets a bad rap. It’s really under-rated. Everyone thinks of Washington Road with its petrol stations and fast food restaurants but there are much nicer places to go.
Did you ever sneak onto Augusta National?
No! There were rumours of people sneaking on by swimming up Rae’s Creek and playing the 12th years ago but that doesn’t happen anymore – there are water moccasins in there now! We were quite lucky as we were invited to play there once a year. The first time I played the course it was fantastic – it’s the only course you know most of the holes on before you’ve ever played it.
Is it what you expected?
I don’t know really. I guess it is a little bit. All that is different is the perspective on the course’s look. It’s really hilly and there are so many big expanses of grass you just don’t see on TV.
Does it favour a draw as much as everyone makes out?
It definitely helps, but Jack Nicklaus won there hitting a fade. You just have to play very well.
Based on current form, who would you fancy next year?
If Rory continues to play well he’ll have a great chance. His game is so well suited to the course.
What did you make of Rory’s Masters meltdown and then what happened at the US Open?
It was incredible. To go through what he went through then play so well in Asia the week after – then win the US Open in the style he did shows just how good he is. He’s going to be around for a long time.
You are yet to make a cut at the Masters. Do you feel added pressure when you play there being an adopted local?
Yes I definitely did. The first year was very tough as we messed up trying to please everyone and going to see all our support and doing lots of media stuff. I didn’t stay focused enough and paid the price. You live and learn, though, and it’s just part of being a professional golfer. There was a lot of support for me, which was nice.
You’re quite a successful match player. Is it your strength?
I do like matchplay, yes. I enjoy the different challenge it gives you and I like to grind down my opponents by getting up and down and holing putts when my game isn’t in top form. I don’t know how the format would work but I’d support the addition of a new (matchplay) tournament.
A normal tour event would be cool. A full-field matchplay event would be fantastic.
Do the Ryder Cup captains actually matter?