Commentary

The legend of Willie Mac

Updated: January 9, 2008, 1:12 PM ET
By Jeff Bradley | ESPN The Magazine

Will MacKenzieESPN the MagazineIt's been a long road, but life is good for Will MacKenzie right now.

If you are the parent of a teenager who lacks focus, motivation or direction, don't read this story. Seriously, skip it.

See, the last thing you want is your teen coming across the tale of a kid who took his God-given talent for granted, cruised through high school on a sea of C's and bailed on college after less than a semester because he felt it would be more "soulful" to drive around the country in a van, surfing, skateboarding, skiing, snowboarding and kayaking, only to realize in his mid-20s that -- guess what? -- his God-given talent was still intact.

In other words, this is the story of a kid who did whatever the hell he wanted and got away with it. This is the story of Willie Mac.

Every word of it is true.

Will MacKenzie sips lemonade and chomps potato chips in the grill room at Jack Nicklaus' Muirfield Village Golf Club near Columbus, Ohio. It's late May, days before the Memorial Tournament, an improbable setting that only gets better with the telling. He laughs out loud while reminiscing about the young 2007 season: "I've been chopping most of the year. Seriously, I've been chopping it bad!"

As MacKenzie jokes, not at all concerned that his is by far the loudest voice in the room, a cast of back-nine-on-Sunday TV regulars walk past. Veterans Vijay Singh and Jesper Parnevik. Even Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear himself. They all call him Willie Mac. They all smile. And with hair styled by four and a half hours of practice-round sweat and topped with a baseball cap, MacKenzie greets each with a lazy, "Hey, man." Crumbs cling to the corners of his mouth. And the look on his face practically screams, "Dudes, can you believe this?"

They ought to because, come Sunday, MacKenzie will finish tied for 11th, earning a sweet 140 grand. A few months later he'll make the cut at his first major, the PGA Championship. A week after, he'll clip the million-dollar mark when he ties for seventh at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., three hours from where he grew up. It will complete the amazing 20-plus-year journey that saw him go from junior golf phenom to 14-year-old quitter, from surf-and-skate rat to college dropout, from ski bum to Taco Bell employee to door-to-door hammock hawker -- then all the way back to the practice range, the minitours, the PGA and the upper tier of the Tour.

When the 2008 season opens in early January, the 33-year-old Willie Mac will step to the tee box as a member of the Tour's exclusive Millionaire's Club. He finished 2007 ranked No. 85 on the money list with $1.1 million in earnings, ahead of such notables as Chris DiMarco, Jeff Maggert and Davis Love III. And he did it with just enough laid-back cool to loosen up the Tour's stone-faced, private jet-flying megastars and career grinders. "He's got the best attitude of any player out here," says another rising star, Camilo Villegas. Need proof? At last January's Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii, MacKenzie spent most of his free time surfing. And he still finished in a tie for fourth.

Yes, Willie Mac's is a great golf story. And it starts with talent, lessons and trophies.

"I was a pretty good golfer as a kid," says MacKenzie, who earned his first trophy when he was 4, at the Popsicle Open in Greenville, N.C. At 13, he jumped to American Junior Golf Association tournaments, even finishing in the top two or three a few times. "I was playing a lot, practicing a lot, traveling a lot," he says. "Then when I was 14, I lost a playoff in one of the big events, the Ben Hogan in Dallas. Missed three tiny putts: one on 17, one on 18, one in the playoff. I was pissed. So I quit."

For young Willie Mac, it was that simple. Losing sucked; other things in his life didn't. "I lived an hour from the beach," he says. "I grew up surfing and skateboarding, and I was starting to fall for soccer. I dumped baseball for golf at 12. I just realized at the end of that summer that all I'd done was play golf, and, like, that kinda blows."

Will MacKenzie
ESPN the MagazineMacKenzie has come a long way since selling hammocks.

Thus began MacKenzie's sports odyssey. He became an all-state striker for the Rose High soccer team. He was a kicker for the football team; a few 40-yard field goals drew attention from college recruiters. Yes, he was also a member of the golf team, but he played in tennis shoes. And of course, he "never, ever practiced."

Instead, Willie Mac surfed. "Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach, Cape Hatteras," he says, rattling off the names of his distractions -- er, priorities. "Emerald Isle was, like, an hour away. I could go there after school. Or me and my buds, we'd just skip school."

As high school came to a close, Willie Mac considered doing "the right thing," which meant going to East Carolina University and kicking the pigskin. That idea fizzled when the coach asked about his transcript. "Uh, not good," MacKenzie responded.

Still, college would satisfy his folks, so Willie Mac enrolled at Lees-McRae, a small private school in the Carolina mountains. He doesn't recall taking classes, perhaps because he fell in love with the mountains. "I got a job as a ski technician at Beech Meadows Ski Shop," he says. "But I spent most of the time hauling ass down Beech Mountain, which is, like, 830 vertical feet -- sweet. Then I started snowboarding."

At this point in the conversation, MacKenzie rises to his feet in the Muirfield grill room, snowboarding on a make-believe slope, knees bent, hands out. "Started snowboarding," he repeats, "and I was like, 'Oh sick -- this is awesome!' You know, a skateboard's tough because it's not attached to you. But snowboarding, it's attached to your feet and you can do anything you want. And I was like, 'Wow.' So I officially dropped out of school and just worked at Beech Mountain and rode."

And Mom and Dad? "We weren't too pleased," says Will's mother, Ruggie. "But I don't think he heard much of what we were saying. He'd call us from time to time, tell us he was doing well, and he never once asked for money. So we let him be."

In the spring of what would have been his freshman year, he bolted with some buddies. They packed up Willie's car and drove 24 hours to Colorado. When they arrived, they didn't sleep; they snowboarded. It was … well, religious. "There was no looking back," says MacKenzie. "We went everywhere: Eldora, Jackson, Big Sky -- anyplace there was snow."

Now he gets a little sentimental: "I think everybody would like to do what I did, you know? I needed to check it out -- the lifestyle, skiing and snowboarding. Then I got out there and man, the mountain biking was sick, the snowboarding, the skiing, the rock climbing, the backpacking -- everything was just so freaking good. I loved it."

For five years, that's how he lived. Occasionally his buddies would ask him to come "shoot some golf." Willie Mac always answered, "Nah, but if I did, I'd wax y'all." His buddies would laugh: "Yeah, right." And Willie Mac would answer, "Trust me."

It was as if he had a dirty secret. Willie Mac grew up wearing polo shirts, khakis and saddle shoes? Sure, he did.

Thanksgiving, 1998. After a taste of heliboarding in Alaska, MacKenzie made his way from Montana to West Virginia and, ultimately, back to Greenville. He needed cash, so he revisited an old high school job, cutting Christmas trees at Reese's Nursery.

"Used the money to buy a ticket to Costa Rica," MacKenzie says. "Figured I'd go surf and let my body heal, because I was pretty beat up."

Will MacKenzie
ESPN the MagazineMacKenzie won his first career PGA Tour title at the 2006 Reno-Tahoe Open.

But strange things happen while you're healing. After three months on the beach, MacKenzie started thinking about his future, how he might eventually want to "have a family and stuff." That's when Willie Mac had an epiphany: hammocks. Shoot, he'd been sleeping in one for weeks, and he loved it. Figuring everybody would want one as well, MacKenzie bought 300 woven hammocks for about six bucks each and went back to Greenville to sell them for $50: "I was like, I'm going to make a fortune selling them to surf shops. Well, I still got a bunch of them. Didn't make that fortune."

This was in the spring of 1999 and there was a lot of buzz about the U.S. Open's being played a couple of hours from Greenville, at Pinehurst No. 2. Willie Mac heard the noise and tuned in to watch Payne Stewart edge Phil Mickelson on the 72nd hole. When Stewart drained a 15-footer to win the title, Willie Mac thought to himself, "That was sweet."

So he went out and hit some balls. Then he played "like, three or four times." Then he asked his father, Mac, "What do you think about me playing golf again, try to make the Tour?"

"You still have time," his dad said. "And what else are you going to do?"

To answer the question, Willie Mac visited John LaMonica, head pro at Ironwood Golf Course in Greenville. "Can I come out here and practice like a flipping madman and see if I fall in love with this game again?" he asked. LaMonica offered a deal: equipment at cost, unlimited play for three months and all the range balls he wanted for $300.

So for the next three months, Willie Mac just practiced. All day long. "My dad would come out every now and then for lunch, and he'd ask, 'How's it going?' And I was like, 'I'm getting better, I'm advancing.' But really it was like, 'I'm falling in love.'"

People in Greenville told him, "Willie Mac, you have talent. Why not try to use it?" And so he did. After turning pro, in January 2000, MacKenzie hit the road, playing the Hooters Tour, the Canadian Tour, the Nationwide Tour. His dad died suddenly in 2002 -- at 58, from a rare condition called epiglottitis -- and Big Mac's passing inspired his son to work even harder. In 2003, Willie Mac played the last 11 events on the Golden Bear Tour. He won once and earned about $60,000. "For the first time in my life, I had money in my pocket," he says.

In December 2004, his confidence soaring, Willie Mac reached the 2005 PGA Tour by tying for 26th at Qualifying School. He lost his card in his first season but won it back at the 2005 Q-School. He played an undistinguished 2006, except when he won Reno-Tahoe. Now, the Reno-Tahoe Open will never be mistaken for the Masters. It's tied for the Tour's smallest purse ($3.5 million) and is played when Tiger, Phil and Vijay are otherwise engaged at the World Golf Championships in Akron. But it is an official Tour event, which makes it a big deal to any golfer -- like, say, Willie Mac -- trying to prove he belongs. So when MacKenzie won by a stroke with a birdie on the 72nd hole, he received not only a $540,000 check but also a two-year Tour qualifying exemption. That meant a spot in the 2007 Mercedes-Benz Championship as well as his first appearance in a major, the 2007 PGA. There he finished in a tie for 57th and pushed his earnings for the year past the $900,000 mark. The following week, at the Wyndham Championship, his tie for seventh and the $150,000 check kicked him into the Millionaire's Club.

That'll buy a lot of hammocks.

"But you know," MacKenzie says, digging deeper into the bag of chips, "you start to make good money, and all of a sudden you're like, I want a faster car and a bigger boat. So now I'm wanting more. I need to learn how to shoot 71 on a bad day instead of 74, the way a guy like David Toms does. I need to toughen up. The one thing I don't like about myself is that I've gotten soft. Like, now I'm bitching and moaning when I can't score a first-class plane ticket. Man, that ain't me. I mean, I used to sleep in my van when it was below zero, and now I'm getting upset if I can't get a good room in the Westin?"

With that, Will MacKenzie takes a last swig of his lemonade. His girlfriend (FHM 's "hottest golf girlfriend," natch) is waiting. So is his courtesy car. The legend of Willie Mac continues. It's good and getting better. Just don't let the kids hear about it.

Is Willie Mac a role model for your son or daughter?

This piece first appeared in ESPN The Magazine.