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Michael Thompson finds balance on TOUR with his love of cars

8 Min Read

Beyond the Ropes

Michael Thompson finds balance on TOUR with his love of cars

    Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour

    An inside look into Michael Thompson’s love for cars

    He found the car he’d been looking for in Tampa, Florida. It was a 1967 Ford Mustang fastback, a classic muscle car like the one Nicolas Cage drove in the movie, “Gone in 60 Seconds.”

    Once he signed all the paperwork, Michael Thompson hopped in his coveted “Eleanor” lookalike and started driving to his home in Birmingham, Alabama. The trip was not without its challenges, though.

    The noise from the exhaust on the car was so loud, that the two-time PGA TOUR champ needed earphones just so he could listen to some music. And Thompson arrived with a massive sunburn on his left arm that he’d left perched on the windowsill of the driver’s side door.

    “But I always say it is the best eight-hour drive of my life,” he says.

    Once he got the Mustang into his driveway, Thompson knew he wanted to make the car his own. So, over the next four years, he took every nut and bolt off the car, stripping it down to its bare body. He took the engine apart, too, redid the brakes and added a new fuel tank and suspension system.

    “So that's kind of been my baby,” he says. “It’s the first real vehicle that I took apart from stem to stern.”

    Thompson, who defends his title at the 3M Championship this week, comes by his love of cars honestly. His parents often told him stories about the 1973 Porsche 911 S Targa they rebuilt, spare parts strewn around the living room, and used as their “daily driver” for several years.

    And Thompson’s dad, who was a tinkerer and a fixer, had a variety of other “cool cars” while he was growing up, including four Porsches, a Toyota Supra, a Dodge Charger and the Volvo station wagon with the turbo engine that his son learned to drive.

    “I think I just kind of fell in love with kind of the romantic notion of building a car in your garage basically,” Thompson says. “I was just always interested in getting into it and learning more about it, about cars in general. And then when I got out on TOUR, I decided to take the plunge.”

    Thompson admits he didn’t know what he was doing when he first started taking the Mustang apart.

    He didn’t know what a piston was or how a carburetor worked or where to find the oil pump. Physically handling the parts helped. So did automotive TV shows and Motor Trend and manuals that told him how to torque a bolt and what fluids to put in the vehicle.

    In hindsight, Thompson wishes he had taken a little more time when he was stripping the Mustang down to its bones – taking pictures and categorizing parts so he’d be better organized. YouTube and the Internet proved to valuable resources, though.

    “The information is at your fingertips whereas I think when my dad was my age now 40 years ago, he didn't have that option,” Thompson says. “He would have had to go talk to a mechanic somewhere.”

    Thompson managed to rebuild that Mustang while still playing more than 20 events each year on the PGA TOUR.

    When he had an off week, he’d spend the first few days in his three-car garage, which is outfitted with a two-post lift, air compressor, sandblasting and welding equipment and many, many tools – “The people at AutoZone have gotten to know me pretty well,” Thompson jokes. Once it was time to practice again to get ready for the next tournament, he’d still manage to head out there in the evenings after his kids went to sleep.

    “There were many, many, many times where I felt like I got something done but realized that I skipped a step about 10 steps ago,” Thompson says. “So, I had to undo everything that I just did and go back and make sure I did it right.

    “So that was a great learning process albeit very frustrating as well, but that's kind of the joy of doing it and also not having a timeline. It was just about getting the job done right.”

    Finally, four years after he bought the Mustang, Thompson was ready to put the key in the ignition again. It was a “very scary” proposition.

    Sure, he’d had a machinist prep the parts before he started rebuilding the engine. And he’d followed the manual religiously, making sure the gaskets were fitted correctly and the right oil added. But still there were doubts after he put the engine in the car and hooked everything up.

    Was it even going to crank? Would the car blow up in his face? Adding to the challenge, Thompson had used all new parts, so he had to break in the engine, sitting there with his foot on the gas to get the RPMs over 2000 for half an hour.

    “And so that was a very great test of patience as well as scary because in learning how an engine works, there's a lot of moving parts and a lot can go wrong if something's not right,” Thompson says. “And so, I basically sat there for 30 minutes sweating.

    “But nothing was broken and, and it worked. And I went on my first test drive, and I had the biggest smile on my face. It was pure joy.”

    For the last few years, the rebuilt Mustang has lived at a body shop in Tennessee where a guy is painting it in his spare time.

    “He's not charging me very much, which is a great deal for me,” Thompson says. “But at the same time, it's taking a really long time and close friends and family are beginning to doubt whether it even exists anymore.

    “But it's real. I promise. And I hopefully will be getting that back sometime this year, maybe early next and be able to drive it and enjoy it.”

    The Mustang is the only car Thompson, who drives a 2013 Chevy Silverado right now, has torn apart completely and rebuilt. But that doesn’t mean he’s done working on cars. In fact, word has gotten out among people in the golf community on St. Simon’s Island where Thompson now lives, and he’s definitely in demand.

    “It's almost like I'm running a little shop in my spare time now,” he says, laughing.

    Thompson spent a couple of years working on a 1988 Land Rover Defender 110 that belongs to Harris English, rebuilding the carburetors, putting in a new exhaust system and redoing the wiring, among other things, to get the car running again. He’s also worked on Keith Mitchell’s 1977 Jeep Cherokee Chief “that he drives literally every day he's home.

    “And it's still running great so that's a positive,” Thompson says.

    The Alabama grad’s next project for himself is a 1968 Bronco. Right now, it’s just a rolling frame. He’s working on putting new mounts on it and getting it ready for a brand body, suspension and engine down the road.

    Thompson hopes his son Jace, who turns 5 in October, will be involved as he gets older – and his younger daughter, Laurel, as well. One of the first things he remembers teaching Jace is the sound a car makes, and the little boy can already recognize the different makes and models of automobiles they pass on the road.

    “So, I think that'll be fun when he gets a little bit older and hopefully my daughter as well will show an interest,” Thompson says. “I mean once they go for a ride in the Mustang and hopefully it happens to them what happened to me when I was a kid in terms of going for a ride in a cool car -- you're just hooked.”

    Thompson says his hobby helps him find balance from the pressure-cooker of playing golf on the PGA TOUR. He also thinks there are similarities between what he does on the golf course and the process he does through when working on a car.

    “A hundred percent, there's a correlation because golf, every shot is like a puzzle,” Thompson says. “So, we're having to decipher all the different conditions that can affect the golf ball. And we make a decision on how we're going to hit that ball in order to get it to where we want it to go.

    “And I think the similarity is in figuring out what the problem is with a car. You listen to the noise that it makes. You can smell sometimes what's happening. You can see a leak coming from certain spots and it's the diagnosing process is an adventure because you don't know what it is initially, and you got to investigate and try to figure out what the problem is.

    “And then once you do, it's taking nuts and bolts off and finding a replacement part and putting it back on and then seeing if it works. So, the gratification of pulling off a great golf shot is the same as fixing a problem on a vehicle to me.”

    The Mustang will probably always be Thompson’s favorite car that he’s worked on. But on his wish list for the future is the Porsche 911 S Targa that his parents rebuilt when they were young. He has the VIN number and actively looks for it on auction sites. He even has photos from 2014 when he found out – after the fact – that it had been for sale on eBay.

    “I'm trying to find that exact car,” Thompson says. “So that would be one that would be real special to me to be able to work on that, own it, drive it just because I know that that's the car, my mom and dad loved back when they were my age.”

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