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Champ notches emotion-filled win at Safeway

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Champ notches emotion-filled win at Safeway

Ailing grandfather who taught him game watched from home

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    NAPA, Calif. – Mack “Pops” Champ never predicted it would come to this. Not when his oldest brother, Clyde, found a rod and bent it into an L shape before taping up the grip for their first golf club. Not when they hit balls in the open fields by the railroad tracks near their home outside Houston, the best they could do because they weren’t allowed on the course except as caddies.

    But it happened, his grandson Cameron winning the Safeway Open at Silverado on Sunday as the man who got him started, Mack, 78, watched on TV. He’s been in hospice care back in Sacramento, hasn’t eaten more than popsicles for three weeks, but he saw every minute. It was real, and there wasn’t a dry eye. Just an hour or so south of their hometown, Cameron won and sobbed onto the shoulder of his caddie, Kurt Kowaluk, as they embraced.

    “I think it was just kind of meant to be,” Cameron said afterward.

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    Added his father, Jeff, his eyes welled with tears and voice breaking, “For this to happen before these last days that we’re going to have with my father here, it’s the man upstairs. It’s amazing.”

    With Mack on hospice and no one sure just how many days he has left, Champ wasn’t sure he was going to play this week. But he didn’t just play, he excelled. He blasted a 369-yard drive down the 18th fairway – the longest of the day by 33 yards – to set up his decisive birdie, and his final-round 69 left him at 17 under par, one shot better than Adam Hadwin (67).

    Marc Leishman (65) finished third, three back.

    “No matter what,” Champ said, “even if I never win another tournament again or I win however many, this will definitely be the greatest moment of my golfing career.”

    It was Champ’s second PGA TOUR win, and the second time in as many seasons he’s won in his second start. He moves to No. 2 in the FedExCup, and earns a spot in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and, for the first time, the Masters Tournament, among other select events.

    Mack couldn’t have predicted any of it, but he had an inkling. After all, it was Mack who bought the boy his first set of plastic golf clubs. And it was Mack, an Air Force man who got close to scratch while playing overseas, who knew what talent looked like.

    “First time I knew he had pretty good coordination,” Mack told the PGA TOUR earlier this year, “I don’t think he was 2 years old. I told him, I want you to take this long tee, you stay over here, and I’m going to go over and I want to see if you can hit it over the top of the house.”

    It was not a big house, single story. The Champs never had a lot. But Cameron hit it over that house; Mack, on the other side, watched the ball clear the roof and come down near his feet.

    “It took him about four or five hits,” he said, smiling, “but he said, ‘Grandpa! I hit it over the top of the house!’ I said, ‘I know! I’m over here, Cameron!’ (Laughs) And from that day on, when he came in, I’d have little putting dishes in the hallway. We just made games. Chipping over bushes. Chipping into coffee cans. You know. I never thought it would lead to this, back then, but I saw something in how he would just swing the club.”

    Added Cameron at the Safeway, “We just hit them back and forth, Wiffle balls, to each other. I think it just started from that.” He calls his grandfather, “The most loving man I know,” and Jeff points out that when Mack needed a kidney transplant in ’75, he got one against the odds.

    “Somebody wanted him to get that transplant,” Jeff said.

    It was toward the end of last season when Jeff told Cameron that Mack had cancer. After the season, Jeff revealed that it was Stage IV. Chemo gave Mack some time, but when he stopped being able to keep down food and water, he knew the end was coming.

    “One day he called me and said, ‘I’m ready,’” Jeff said.

    With his grandfather in hospice, Cameron missed the pro-am and didn’t play a practice round as the family shuttled back and forth between Sacramento and Napa. Somehow, though, he played mostly mistake-free at Silverado, where wrote “POPS” on his shoes and golf balls and led the field in driving distance. In a sense, he said, the situation back in Sacramento might have calmed him, imbuing a sense of perspective that was lacking as he struggled for much of last season.

    “Obviously, golf, it’s my career,” Champ said. “I love doing it, but it made me realize it’s not the most important thing, that there’s a lot more to life.”

    Although he lived through racial discrimination as he grew up in Columbus, Texas, about 75 miles west of Houston, Mack didn’t let it dim his outlook. “It’s not where you come from,” he said, “it’s where you’re going.” (Cameron had the words stamped on his wedges.) While he wasn’t allowed to play on the nine-hole course where he caddied for 75 cents a loop, he would take up golf in the Air Force, at courses and driving ranges in Germany and England. He taught himself the swing in part by reading “Sam Snead’s Natural Golf.”

    Although son Jeff was not a golfer but a minor-league baseball player – a catcher – Cameron most assuredly was. They not only hit Wiffle balls over the house, Mack caddied for a teen-age Cameron at the PURE Insurance Championship, a PGA TOUR Champions event that incorporates members from The First Tee. It was only fitting that when Cameron won the Sanderson Farms Championship last season, Mack was brought into the celebration by iPhone.

    It happened again at the Safeway, Cameron and Jeff sharing a long embrace before Jeff handed his son the phone. Grandpa Mack was on the line, and they shared a brief conversation.

    “For him to be able to see me make that putt on 18 on the 72nd hole to win,” Cameron said, “like I said, that will go down as the greatest moment ever in my golfing career.”

    The putt, by the way, was 3 feet, 8 inches long. “Focus,” Mack always stressed. Cameron did.

    Then came a long procession of hugs for the winner, starting with his parents – his mom, Lisa, had been with Mack but came to Silverado for the final round – and moving on to siblings and spouses of siblings, friends down from Sacramento, his agent, and others.

    “Who am I forgetting?” Champ said after running through the long list.

    Finally, someone handed him a phone, and holding the wine-cask trophy for a victory selfie, Champ looked into the camera and said it all: “This one’s for you, Pops.”

    On this day, especially, no one was forgetting Mack Champ.

    Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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