Will MacKenzie doesn’t recall a specific day or place when he first felt it, but he absolutely remembers the anxiety that gripped him.
With a wedge in his hand and just a short distance to the green, MacKenzie no longer could be certain where his ball might wind up.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing anymore,” said the winner of two PGA TOUR titles. “Sometimes I’d just slam it through and it’d come up nice, then other times I’d just dump it about 10 feet.”
To emphasize, MacKenzie gestured toward a golf cart parked, well, maybe 10 feet away. “From here to there, off a perfect lie. I was like, ‘Man, I just have no plan here.’ ”
For an explanation as to how the free-spirited “Willie Mac” fell from sight, the short-game numbers tell the tale. Even in years he was winning, just once did MacKenzie rank higher than 128th in scrambling.
Now after an offseason with chips and pitch shots at the forefront, the South Carolina native has regained his nerve. And though it doesn’t fully reflect on his scorecard, he’s confident he’s on the right path back to the big show.
“I believe in it; I think it’ll happen,” said MacKenzie, who comes to this week’s Mid-Atlantic Championship with three top-25 finishes in his past five starts. “I just have to do like everybody else out here – close these rounds out a little better.
“But the fire’s back in there. I’ve just got to get in contention and get used to it again.”
For those who may not recall, MacKenzie was the guy who took the really scenic path to the PGA TOUR. He quit golf as a high-school sophomore, favoring such activities as kayaking and rock climbing.
He moved to Montana at age 19, living out of his van for five years. At another point, a cave was his home. Golf didn’t re-enter the picture for a decade, when he saw Payne Stewart win the 1999 U.S. Open. After kicking around five years on the minitours, he earned his PGA TOUR card.
The storyline only grew when MacKenzie won the 2006 Reno-Tahoe Open and 2008 Viking Classic. But he was a streaky player, and that short game couldn’t make up for weeks when his ballstriking was awry.
“I was once a good chipper,” he said, “but I think I worked on my [full] swing for so long with so many different coaches that it kind of got left behind. I just got into some bad habits with my chipper.”
In 2008, MacKenzie ranked 130th in scrambling. By 2011, he was scraping around the bottom of the list. Last year, he managed to save par less than half the time when he missed a green in regulation.
“I believed in my scrambling a while back,” he said, “but the stats were showing that I was awful. And then I started feeling it, too. I was getting scared to hit my pitch shots and chip shots. That’s just no good.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way I can be scared – why am I scared?’ Well, because my technique was bad and I was scared of the results I was getting.”
MacKenzie decided to grab the bull by the horns. Working with swing coach Jeff Leischman, they made the short game the focus of his offseason training.
In reality, it was pretty much the only thing MacKenzie worked on.
“I put forth two hours of work on my short game every day – and then I was going to pitch a lot,” he said, noting that the work also helped him get consistent with some elements of his full swing.
“You’re constantly hitting half-shots out there,” he added. “So if you can get the club working right with your pitch shots, you can sort of be working on your full swing at the same time.”
Statistically, MacKenzie has made huge strides. He’s currently 19th in scrambling with a 65.5 par-save percentage. He also ranks No. 9 in sand saves and No. 2 in bounceback – recovering a lost shot with a birdie or eagle on the next hole.
Where it has taken longer to show up has been on the scorecard. Those four top-25 finishes have been countered by four missed cuts, leaving him currently No. 49 on the money list.
On the positive side, none of those MCs have included a round worse than 74. In Chile, he missed the cut despite shooting 3-under.
“I’m re-energized,” he said, acknowledging that at age 38, the window is starting to close on his most productive years.
“I feel like if I stay healthy, I can have five more years left of good competitive play. Then after that, who knows? I think you’re still strong enough to hit it hard enough, but these next five years are vital for me.”
However, he’s also drawing a little inspiration from the young guns that populate the Web.com Tour.
“All these guys are young bucks,” he said. “I’m 38, I’ve been on TOUR, and now I want to get back. I’ve got kids and a family, whereas these guys are able to just grind it out like I used to. They’re showing me what it takes.”