U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Wilson Set for Limelight After 2018 Senior Amateur Triumph
June 21, 2019 | Fairfield, Calif.
By David Shefter, USGA
Last August, employees at Toyota of Vallejo were distracted from their daily routines by an event 500 miles away.
But it wasn’t a major announcement from the Japanese automobile giant that garnered their attention.
What had employees huddled around an upstairs computer screen, technicians checking their smart phones and executives distracted from day-to-day business was – of all things – a golf competition.
Only a handful of the dealership’s 114 employees play golf. Most know little about the game. Yet on that morning, there was a palpable buzz filtering through the building because Jeff Wilson, the president of the dealership that has been in his family for nearly four decades, was competing in the final match of the 64th U.S. Senior Amateur Championship.
“The energy was off the charts,” said longtime general manager Dave Johnston, “because everyone knew what was happening. I had to make sure everyone was still doing their work.”
“We learned what all square meant,” Kayla Brempell, a contracts clerk, told a visitor in early November, almost 2½ months after Wilson’s 2-and-1 triumph over defending champion Sean Knapp at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club. “We were all very excited.”
“I had chills on my arms just like when Tiger [Woods] won [at The Tour Championship in September],” said longtime technician Randy Tsui, one of the few employees who plays. It was Wilson who got Tsui to take up the game. “It was awesome.”
And though car sales may not have jumped in the immediate aftermath of Wilson’s victory, it was a popular achievement, both inside and outside the car business.
Soon after Wilson hoisted the Frederick L. Dold Trophy and became the third-youngest champion in U.S. Senior Amateur history, text messages flooded his phone. PGA professional Jeff Brehaut, his best friend and former college teammate at the University of the Pacific, was one of the first to congratulate him.
“We felt like we won, too,” said Johnston, a recreational player who admits his scores are better when he plays alongside Wilson.
Last July 1, Wilson tied for 31st place in the U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor to join Marvin (Vinny) Giles as the only players to have earned low-amateur honors in both the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open. That achievement earned Wilson an exemption into this week’s 40th U.S. Senior Open at the Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame. His victory over Knapp put Wilson into the traditional featured pairing with reigning U.S. Senior Open champion David Toms and 2018 Senior British Open winner Miguel Angel Jimenez, of Spain.
Many in the golf world, especially those who regularly compete against him, have gushed at Wilson’s talent for decades. Knapp said Wilson is not just one of the top senior amateur golfers in the country, but one of the best amateur players, period. Others also heaped praise.
“He’s a very solid ball-striker, a good putter and good at thinking his way around the golf course,” said Corby Segal, who lost an epic five-hole playoff to Wilson in the 2018 Southern California Golf Association (SCGA) Mid-Amateur at Saticoy Country Club. “And when you play well like that, you gain confidence, which he’s had for a very long time.”
After Wilson edged longtime Northern California rival Randy Haag by two strokes to claim the California Senior Amateur at The Preserve in mid-November, The Olympic Club member told the Northern California Golf Association, “There’s no other am that does the things Jeff does.”
Such platitudes don’t inflate Wilson’s humble nature. He’s California cool personified with an easy-going demeanor.
“I never really put that much pressure on myself to try and win one,” said Wilson of finally breaking through in a USGA championship in his 34th start. “Maybe that’s why it took me so long.”
Wilson shared his victory that overcast August day with his longtime friend/regular caddie Bobby Periera and an unexpected guest.
Jack Wilson, Jeff’s 84-year-old father, was on an annual fly-fishing trip in Oregon when Jeff reached the Senior Amateur final. Jack made a beeline to Eugene, arriving that morning as the finalists reached the seventh tee. A Eugene Country Club member escorted Jack in a golf cart as he watched his son play 4-under-par golf over the final eight holes in fulfilling a dream that began with the 1979 U.S. Junior Amateur, the same year Jack purchased the Toyota dealership.
Automobile sales have been the Wilsons’ livelihood since 1941, when Jeff’s grandfather opened a Ford dealership in Vallejo, a bedroom community 32 miles northeast of San Francisco (Jack Wilson sold the Ford dealership in 2004).
Jeff turned professional after college, playing one full season on the PGA Tour in 1990, when he made 11 cuts in 28 events. He retired from pro golf in 1994 and worked at a Toyota dealership in Roseville, Calif., for six months before joining the staff at his father’s dealership, where he worked his way up to the role of president.
Wilson never lost his desire to play competitive golf. In 1997, he regained his amateur status, and thanks to a trusted GM (Johnston), the dealership has thrived (earning Toyota’s Presidential Award for excellence 21 times) and he is able to compete in elite competitions. Wilson is the only golfer to earn medalist honors in the U.S. Amateur (twice), U.S. Mid-Amateur (three times) and U.S. Senior Amateur (2018). When he won in Eugene, he ended a 31-year drought for medalists in that championship, the longest for any USGA amateur event.
“He’s good at selling cars,” said Jack, “but golf is the real motivating factor to keep going. He likes to play with people at the highest level. That’s why the USGA events appeal to him.”
Wilson considers himself a better player now than he was in his college or professional days. He and his wife, Vickie, have raised two children. His son, Jack, 24, is working on a Ph.D. in atomic physics at Princeton University after graduating from Brown University, where he played on the golf team. Daughter Olivia, 22, recently graduated from the University of Southern California and works for a video/television production company.
After becoming empty-nesters, Jeff and Vickie bought an Australian shepherd named Herman. Walking Herman each morning from their home to nearby Green Valley Country Club, where Wilson is a member, reinvigorated Jeff’s practice habits. It started with him casually hitting wedge shots, and progressed to a routine where he would hit balls for an hour, then take Herman home before heading to work.
That extra practice led to a strong 2018 season that began in the first week of January when he teamed with Brehaut to win the annual Johnnie O Twin Fin Tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., a two-day competition featuring one touring pro and a scratch amateur. The two have competed in the event since its inception 17 years ago, and it was their second victory against the likes of PGA Tour winners Kevin Streelman, Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson. Brehaut and Wilson first met as freshmen at Pacific in 1981. Born one day apart – Brehaut on June 13 and Wilson June 14 – in 1963, the two have become inseparable, even sharing the same legendary instructor, Phil Rodgers, for 27 years before he passed away in June 2018.
Post-college, they traveled together to mini-tour events in Southern California. While Wilson regained his amateur status, Brehaut has remained a pro. He played eight years on the PGA Tour and since turning 50, he’s tried to earn status on the PGA Tour Champions.
Brehaut is also a noted instructor – one of his clients is five-time USGA champion Juli Inkster. Wilson, who can still compete distance-wise with players half his age (his swing speed of 93 mph with a 7-iron is slightly higher than an average PGA Tour player), often calls or texts Brehaut for advice, but it’s rarely about swing mechanics. During the Senior Amateur, they chatted every night.
The two also regularly battle in U.S. Senior Open qualifiers – in 2013 they qualified together at Green Valley in their first year of eligibility, while in 2018 Wilson edged his buddy for first-alternate status via a playoff and later got into the field. They relish competing as partners in pro-am events such as the Johnnie O (formerly the Tommy Bahama) at Grayhawk.
“It’s our favorite tournament of the year,” said Brehaut. “I have the best amateur in the field, but I am nowhere near close to the best pro in the field. But we know the course and can ham-and-egg it. We shot a 57 in the scramble [portion] this year. That’s insane.”
Although Wilson has been invited to such high-profile invitationals as the Crump Cup, Coleman and George Thomas, he eschews a national schedule, typically playing a handful of NCGA and SCGA competitions and USGA championships. He doesn’t want to spend too many days away from family and work, and he prefers playing in team events with Brehaut or Todd Barsotti, another former Pacific golfer who is an amateur.
Visitors to the dealership would never know its president is one of the top amateur golfers in the country. He waited until early November – some 2½ months from his victory – before bringing in the Senior Amateur trophy.
The only noticeable signs of Wilson’s passion are in his upstairs office. The walls are adorned with framed mementos from his U.S. Open appearances (four), the scorecard of his career-best 62 in the 2010 U.S. Amateur, a plaque detailing his third hole-in-one, a flag from the Johnnie O and a framed letter from former USGA president Reed MacKenzie.
Wilson will begin the defense of his Senior Amateur title on Aug. 24 at Old Chatham Golf Club in Durham, N.C., and he also earned exemptions into the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club and the U.S. Mid-Amateur at Colorado Golf Club with his victory.
Even though Wilson failed to advance out of sectional qualifying for the 119th U.S. Open, he has played in two U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach, including 1982 when he qualified just before his 19th birthday. Wilson was the low amateur in 2000 when Tiger Woods won by a record 15 strokes, and on Monday of that week, Wilson played an unexpected practice round with Woods and Mark O’Meara.
Eighteen years later, Wilson would have another brush with a legendary golfer at Pebble. The USGA grouped him for the two stroke-play rounds of the 118th U.S. Amateur with Gary Nicklaus, son of 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus, who followed all 36 holes at Pebble and stroke-play co-host Spyglass Hill. “Probably cost me four to five shots,” said Wilson with a smile. Gary also qualified for this week’s Senior Open.
Wilson will have to get accustomed to another marquee grouping on Thursday and Friday.
“I was already in [the U.S. Senior Open before the U.S. Senior Amateur victory] and I figured I would be playing with a couple of club pros off the [10th tee],” said Wilson, who doesn’t mind competing in relative anonymity. “Now I am cast right in the middle. I am going to enjoy it. It’s going to be really cool.
“Maybe I can get some wine and cigar tips from Miguel.”
Or Wilson can give car tips to his two fellow senior champions.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.