DETROIT — Willie Mack III was maybe 7 or 8 when his father asked if he'd be interested in trying golf.
Young Willie liked basketball, baseball and football, but, infatuated by the Tiger Woods phenomena, he said sure. Old Willie went out and bought his son some cut-down TaylorMade Burner Bubble clubs, and within three years, the student had beaten the teacher.
It all went down at Pierce Park Golf Club, a par-3 course in Flint, Mich.
"He was like, 'What's the score, Dad?' " Willie Mack Jr. said earlier this week. "It took me a while. I kept adding it up, wait a minute, is this right? I can't remember the score, but he beat me by like four strokes."
There was no trophy for that performance that day in Flint in the late 1990s, but let's call it the first unofficial victory in a golf career full of them — Mack is at 65 professional trophies and counting, not counting being the first Black player to win the Michigan Amateur in 2011, and yet, at age 32, this week outside Los Angeles, he made just his second PGA Tour start, at the Genesis Invitational at famed Riviera Country Club.
He shot a one-under-par 70 Thursday, which tied him for for 34th place, six shots behind leader Sam Burns.
Mack played in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in late January, as a last-minute replacement for good friend Kamaiu Johnson, who caught COVID-19. Mack wasn't expecting to play, and he missed the cut.
This week was to be Mack's debut, and an extra-special one at that. Not only was this to be the pinnacle of a decade-plus-long struggle through golf's mini-tours and really-mini-tours — at one point, he was homeless for nearly two years, sleeping in a car; at many points, he'd borrow money from Dad, sometimes for tournament entry fees, other times for the McDonald's dollar menu; Dad didn't always have it, but would always find it, once even resorting to high-interest, short-term payday loans — it's also Woods' tournament, and he selected Mack as the recipient of the Charles Sifford Memorial Exemption. The exemption is named after the PGA Tour's first Black player, and was presented by arguably PGA Tour's best-ever player, of any race.
Mack has read Sifford's book, "Just Let Me Play," and became fully hooked on golf while watching Woods' dominating win at the 1997 Masters.
Mack and his dad used to follow Woods every year at the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich. One year, Mack scored his autograph, now his second-most prized gift from Woods.
"It just brought tears to my eyes, I was so happy for him. We've been waiting a long time for this," Dad said of the call last month from Son that he was in the Genesis. "We'd watch Tiger every time they had the Buick. That's who we would follow, Tiger all the way around 18 holes. We wouldn't leave until Tiger left, even though I was tired. There wasn't a time we'd miss that.
"He got into golf watching Tiger.
"It was always Tiger."
Willie Mack III shouldn't have had to wait until Jan. 28, 2021, to make his PGA Tour debut. He's won all over the place, for a long time. He was all-state in high school and led Grand Blanc to a state championship in 2004, finishing runner-up as an individual. He won on the American Junior Golf Association circuit, and won 11 individual championships at Bethune-Cookman, an HBCU in Daytona Beach, Fla. He's since won so many mini-tour tournaments in so many places you've never heard of.
But golf isn't just about having the talent. A lot of people have the talent.
It's about having the opportunity. It's about having the funds, preferably from deep-pocket and patient sponsors. It's about having access to technology and teaching and equipment. Until only recently, Mack never had any of that. Some of that wasn't Mack's fault, but some of that was. He's a shy guy, a true introvert, and didn't know how to ask for help. Even in all those phone calls where Dad would ask him if he needed cash, Mack wouldn't just come out and say yes. He'd hem and haw, and Dad just knew.
And Dad did what he could, every time. But Dad's a social worker for Genesee Health System, not a Fortune 500 company that looks nice on a polo shirt.
"It was all lost on Willie," said Ken Bentley, CEO of the Advocates Pro Golf Association, a mini-tour founded in 2008 with a mission to bring more diversity to professional touring golf. "Willie felt like if he kept playing and practicing harder, and playing better, then things would happen.
"It just doesn't happen like that in golf. And I think he finally realized that.
"It's not like he's a much better player now."
Mack has been a regular on APGA for the last seven years, but only a couple years ago did he start becoming close with Bentley — so much so that in 2019, Bentley wrote a recommendation letter to the Genesis Invitational seeking an exemption for Mack in 2020. The letter was exclusively about Mack's golf accomplishments. He didn't get it.
This past December, Bentley sat down to help write another letter, but this time he stopped himself, and told Mack that his golf accolades by themselves weren't going to cut it. Mack needed to tell at least some of his life story — and there was a whole lot to choose from, from the Flint upbringing to all the struggles, all the travails. One day in November 2018, when he was driving on a Florida highway, his car started smoking. He pulled over, got out, quickly realized the car was on fire and grabbed the only thing he needed — his golf clubs — before watching everything else go up in flames.
"At least if I had my clubs," Mack said Tuesday, "I could make a few bucks."
The car-fire video got out, and a crazy thing happened. People helped. Lots of people, big like Titleist and small like random strangers. It might've been his first realization that there were people who could help.
So when Bentley hounded him in December about opening up some in the latest Genesis pitch, Mack agreed. He wrote that he shared some of the same struggles Sifford encountered. He wrote about his limited resources. He wrote, "When I win on Tour, I hope I can inspire young people like Mr. Sifford and Tiger did for me." Almost immediately after sending the letter, Bentley got a response from tournament director Mike Antolini, who said something like, "Boy, this is an amazing story," and within a month, the spot was Mack's.
Mack was practicing at ChampionsGate outside Orlando, Fla., when he got the call. He then called Dad. They both cried.
In the month since, Mack has become a hot story in golf-writing circles, even being featured in a centerpiece on GolfChannel.com on Monday. He's still not used to being so open, but he's getting there.
"I'm a quiet guy," said Mack, who's played one Korn Ferry Tour event (missed cut, though his 60 in Monday qualifying was and is a Tour record), and two PGA Tour Latinoamerica events (one made cut, for $766). "I think maybe in the early stages of it happening, it was maybe a little bit embarrassing. But I'm glad I went through it and it made me a better man and a better golfer today."
Today, Mack is sponsored by Farmers Insurance; he works with one of the elite golf instructors in the world, TPC Sawgrass' and Michigan native Todd Anderson; he has some some bucks in the bank and his own apartment in Orlando; and he's got 8:19 a.m. Thursday and 12:49 p.m. Friday tee times at Riviera.
He's not exactly super-comfortable now — but comfort is all relative.
For instance, he's far more comfortable now than when he was sleeping in a tinted-windows Mustang — "a tight squeeze," the resident said — hoping hotel (or motel) security didn't boot him out of the parking lot.
He's also the 1,829th-ranked golfer in the world.
Mack has quit sports before. He quit baseball. He quit basketball. He quit football. You know, all those sports you were supposed to play if you're from Flint.
But he never quit golf. He quit those other sports because of golf.
"The coaches in the church league and AAU were saying, 'We want Willie to play,' " Dad said. "I don't know what to tell you. I'm not going to force him to play.
"He's just gonna play golf."
That has remained Mack's attitude, even when things got really tough — and they were tough for a long time.
Despite the decorated career at Bethune-Cookman, doors didn't open when he left college. Usually, a PGA Tour tournament will give a golden ticket — or a sponsor's exemption — to a local kid on the rise, a first big break, so to speak. But the old Buick Open never did, nor has Detroit's new PGA Tour stop, the Rocket Mortgage Classic, held at Detroit Golf Club, which Mack played extensively growing up.
In 2010, the Byron Nelson Championship in Irving, Texas, gave a local 16-year-old high-schooler named Jordan Spieth a sponsor's exemption. He was in contention on the back nine on Sunday, tied for 16th, and it springboarded the career arc of a future No. 1-ranked player in the world and three-time major champion. Maybe Spieth has doors opened without the Byron Nelson, but maybe not.
He'll never know, nor will Mack ever know how his life would be different had he had such a chance.
Instead, Mack knows what he knows — which is more than a decade of borrowing whatever Dad could spare. Sometimes Dad, 59, would deposit it in Son's account, if it was small, like when Mack needed to eat. Other times, it was a Walmart-to-Walmart cash transfer. There were payday loans — when a good interest rate is in the low hundreds — for the bigger entry fees, and he even took out a personal loan for Mack's Qualifying School bid.
The financial support goes all the way back to high school. When Flint Central discontinued golf after his sophomore year, Mack had to find a new school, and rather than his Dad's alma mater, Flint Powers Catholic, he chose Grand Blanc. So Dad had to establish a residency in Grand Blanc — the superintendent wanted to see a water bill in his name — and while a real-estate friend secured him a good deal, for the last two years of Mack's prep career, Dad still was footing the bill for two houses.
Willie Mack rarely if ever considered quitting chasing his golf dream — not just for himself, but for his dad. Dad always said yes, and never considered saying no, so how could Son?
"He believed in himself, and I believed in him," Dad said. "I'd say, 'It's gonna work out Willie.' He probably was saying to himself, 'When? I hope it hurries up and works out.' "
Even when Mack was winning and cashing some modest checks, he still would often need Dad's assistance. That's because any prize money usually went to the next tournament, or for a year-and-a-half period about eight years ago a hotel room for the weekend.
At the time, tired of all the couch surfing, he was sleeping in his car in Florida parking lots. He actually won a mini-tour money list during that time, "but you have to make a decision to either get a hotel and spend some extra money or play in the next tournament ... or eat," Mack said.
The situation devastated Dad, one of the few close friends who knew Mack's situation.
"I would call him every morning to make sure he was OK," Dad said. "That was hard, to know your child was sleeping in his car.
"I get emotional about that, just talking about it. You don't want your child living out of his car.
"But he was trying to make it."
It was on the APGA where Mack finally started to find some solid footing. In 2015, at a tournament outside Atlanta, Mack was in a playoff with Kevin Hall — who's deaf and whose story has been well-told, serving years later as an inspiration for Mack's own opening-up — and playing a dangerous par 5. Hall laid up to the left of the water in front of the green, but Mack wasn't in the mood to play it safe. He went over the trees and over the water, hitting his approach shot to 20 feet. He made the putt for eagle and cashed the check.
In 2019, Mack again found himself in a playoff, in the APGA's Tour Championship, also in suburban Atlanta. He made a 15-foot birdie putt to win, and won $27,000 — $12,000 for the tournament and $15,000 for the tour's Lexus Cup as player of the year. That's Big Mac money, not dollar-menu money. He also was the Florida Professional Golf Tour player of the year in 2019.
"He would take chances. That's what really impressed me about him," Bentley said. "He wasn't really a guy who wanted to play it safe. He always wanted to win. That's what I like about Willie.
"He's just unbelievable under pressure."
By 2019, Mack already had moved out of his Mustang, and into a friend's house for a couple of years. (Such shared living situations are common among mini-tour grinders.) The big showing in 2019 got Mack his own apartment, one that didn't require an oil change.
His APGA performance also earned him a two-year sponsorship from Farmers Insurance last February, to help cover travel costs and other expenses. Farmers also sponsors Rickie Fowler, who's also sponsored by Rocket Mortgage. Perhaps that connection to a sponsor's exemption at the 2021 Rocket Mortgage Classic.
Doors are finally opening for Mack. And not just car doors.
Tiger Woods is missing the Genesis Invitational, recovering from another back surgery. Willie Mack Jr., The Third's dad, also will miss it, given the PGA Tour's COVID-19 protocols.
But their impact certainly was felt when Mack took the tee Thursday — a culmination of all that hard work from when young Willie would play sun up to sun down, at Swartz Creek Golf Course, Mott Park or Pierce Park. At Swartz Creek, he'd get the junior rate, but he was there so much, the clubhouse workers usually would let him go play for free. In the winter, he banged ball after ball at the area dome.
The work never stopped, nor did Mack's continued belief and fight.
"Flint," said Dad, "made him a very strong person."
Mack acknowledges the Flint upbringing helped with perseverance, but Dad helped more.
"Some people would help out here and there," said Mack, "but it's pretty much just me and my dad."
This is Mack's second PGA Tour start — past Sifford Exemption winners include the likes of Harold Varner III, J.J. Spaun and Cameron Champ — and he hopes his first made cut. He doesn't know when his next one will come. That will be up to him — both with his play, and his willingness to put himself out there. (He also has the APGA, on which he's won a record six times, and Florida Professional Golf Tour to keep busy; he last won in December in Daytona, earning $5,000.)
At 32, he's an "old" man on a young man's PGA Tour. The young talent is possibly as deep as it's ever been. There are better times to start your PGA Tour career.
Then again, there's no better time for Mack.
"I just think the best, really, is yet to come with him," said Bentley, adding that Mack is the prototypical type of golfer the APGA was founded to help. "He's 32, but really for a golfer, I think he's 22. The world is just really starting for him.
"I think the next 10 years are going to be awesome."
Added Mack, who still knows the McDonald's dollar menu by heart: "Everybody goes through tough times, I just went through a different one than most people. ... I've come a long way and I'm glad I'm not in that car, and I definitely am going to work hard and make sure I don't get back in there."