Willie Mack III makes first PGA TOUR cutRocket Mortgage Classic marks historic chapter in one of golf’s wildest origin stories
July 02, 2021
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
PGA TOUR – The CUT
Willie Mack walk-and-talk in downtown Detroit
DETROIT — Willie Mack III shot a second-round 73 to finish 3 under to make his first PGA TOUR cut. After bogeys on holes 7, 11 and 16, there was no margin for error.
From short of the 18th green, he chipped to 4 1/2 feet and made the par putt. His friends and family, some wearing Willie Mack III T-shirts, exhaled and cheered. Wayne Birch, who caddies for Troy Merritt (68, 9 under) and had returned to the course after Merritt finished, held up his phone to capture the moment.
“I probably was more nervous than he was,” said Birch, who played for Southern University before embarking on his career as a caddie. “In the Black community in golf, we all knew, all of us who played at a high level, that Willie is next up. This is so big.”
Mack, 32, hasn’t gotten much sleep. Darkness halted play with three holes remaining in his first round, so he woke up early and played 21 holes Friday. His supporters were there for every shot.
“Yeah, I heard some of my friends,” he said. “I wasn't looking, but I know their voices, so I heard them. It's exciting to just be able to play in your hometown amongst friends and family.”
Friday marked a historic chapter in one of the game’s least likely origin stories.
The son of a social worker, Mack grew up in nearby Flint, a town that became synonymous with the loss of manufacturing jobs in America. He scrounged for equipment, and when his high school team discontinued its golf team his sophomore year, his dad moved them to Grand Blanc.
Mack’s new school won the 2004 state championship. He won the Flint City Amateur three times, and in 2011 was the first Black player to win the Michigan Amateur. He played for the only school to give him a full-ride scholarship, HBCU Bethune-Cookman, and won 11 times.
Life as a pro, though, was no picnic. He lived in his car for a year and a half, slept in friends’ spare bedrooms. Insiders knew how good he was, but the full array of his talents remained mostly hidden. Golf Channel’s Ryan Lavner noted that the first time Mack worked with well-known instructor Todd Anderson at TPC Sawgrass – part of the PGA TOUR’s commitment to the minority-focused APGA Tour – Anderson asked, “How are you not on TOUR yet?”
A lack of funds didn’t help. When he qualified to play PGA TOUR Latinoamerica in 2018, Mack – the winner of more than 60 minitour titles – didn’t play the circuit because the cost was prohibitive. Last year, though, his career took a quantum leap when Farmers Insurance signed him and fellow APGA star Kamaiu Johnson to two-year deals as player ambassadors.
Since then, Mack’s opportunities have kept rolling in. The 2019 Player of the Year on the APGA and the Florida Pro Golf Tour, he filled in for Johnson at the 11th hour at the Farmers Insurance Open earlier this year. Although he missed the cut (74-75) he beat a handful of TOUR winners.
Mack also got into The Genesis Invitational in L.A. as the Charlie Sifford Exemption recipient. He again missed the cut (70-76) but finished ahead of Rory McIlroy, among others. He also had a leisurely lunch with tournament host Tiger Woods, his childhood idol.
He estimates he has played Detroit Golf Club hundreds of times, although not always with such wet fairways and swirling winds. Although he got to 6 under and just three off the lead through six holes of his second round, he was 3 over from there, leading to some tense moments.
“I’m just so happy for him,” Birch said. “It’s so inspiring. My dream was to play on the PGA TOUR, but that’s over with. With Willie – it’s almost like I’m living through him. It just goes to show that if you keep grinding, stay the course, and believe in yourself, anything can happen.”Troy Merritt celebrates with Wayne Birch after winning the Barbasol Championship in 2018. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Birch and Mack were part of a group that would be going to watch the Detroit Tigers on Friday night, and they’ll have plenty to celebrate. Mack’s biggest career paycheck to date is $37,000, and now he’ll be playing for a lot more than that over the weekend on a course he knows well.
Whatever happens, he’ll play in the John Deere Classic next week. It’s an exciting time.
“I went to go get some food last night,” he said. “I think I got about three hours of sleep. I'm tired, but I think adrenaline kept me going and hopefully it can hold up for the next two days.”