PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Willie Mack III has taken the road less traveled in his pro golf career. And that’s an understatement.
Like others on the way up, he got familiar with the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s. Unlike others, he used to sleep in his car, sometimes getting shooed out of parking lots late at night by security guards. But more on his McDonald’s meals and his Mustang in a minute.
Mack has won 65 times on various mini-tours and at age 32, is finally getting some cracks at the PGA Tour.
Mack was supposed to make his PGA Tour debut at the Genesis Invitational, being held this week at Riviera Country Club, but he got his first Tour start three weeks earlier than expected after he became a last-minute replacement for fellow Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour golfer Kamaiu Johnson, who contracted COVID-19 and had to withdraw from the Farmers Insurance Open.
In stepped Mack, who hustled from his home in Orlando to San Diego to play Torrey Pines, a course he knew very little about and admits wasn’t all that prepared for. He had rounds of 74 and 75 and missed the cut by six shots.
Now he’s at Riviera, the recipient of the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption, which was extended by tournament host Tiger Woods. Here, he’s getting properly prepared for competition.
“I played 27 holes on the Sunday after missing the cut at Torrey,” Mack said on a Teams call with reporters on Tuesday. “I played 18 yesterday and nine today. I really like this course a lot better than Torrey,” he said with a laugh.
So that’s the skimming-the-surface version of how Mack got here. The deeper story, first revealed in a compelling read by Golf Channel’s Ryan Lavner, is one of perseverance, self-confidence and a never-give-up determination.
The low point came in 2012 when Mack, then driving a Kia, came close to serious injury, possibly even death. From Lavner’s story:
While driving back from a tournament on Interstate 95, the engine of his 2012 Kia Optima shut off unexpectedly, just days after it was replaced in a company recall. After Mack pulled over, two people began shouting at him to get out of the car. Mack thought he was being robbed.
“Your car is on fire!” they screamed.
Mack jumped out and saw the smoke billowing. Instinctively, he grabbed his clubs out of the trunk and threw them to the side of the road – believing, he said, “if I have my clubs, then I can make some money somehow.” He tried to get back inside through the driver’s side door, but it wouldn’t budge.
A few seconds later, his car exploded.
But Mack kept at it. In 2019, he was Player of the Year on the APGA. Here in 2021, he’ll make his second start on the PGA Tour.
“It was 7 ½ years ago,” he said of sleeping in his Mustang. “It was a tight squeeze.” Yet he kept eking out an existence, chasing his dream. “I was in and out of the car for maybe about a year and a half. Not many people knew. It was a tough time but like I said I’m glad I went through it.
“Everybody goes through tough times, I just went through a different one than most people, but I’m glad I got through it and hopefully the future will be a lot better than that.”
He said he really hadn’t spoken to anyone in depth about his travails and admits that “maybe at first it was embarrassing. … It was real life. I remember it like it was yesterday. But I’ve come a long way. I’m glad I’m not in that car. I’m going to work hard so I don’t have to go back.”
One thing that hasn’t changed?
“I still do eat the Dollar Menu from McDonald’s to this day.”