Willie Mack III, set for Genesis Invitational, hopes he has found a home on PGA Tour
Seven years of a better life, a life with a roof over his head, haven’t dulled the memory for Willie Mack III. The thought of being homeless and living out of his car for more than a year is never far from his mind, even now as he’s surrounded by the idyllic beauty of Riviera Country Club.
“It was real life,” said Mack, 32, who will make his second PGA Tour start at the Genesis Invitational, which begins Thursday. “I remember it like it was yesterday, but I’ve come a long way and I’m glad I’m not in that car.”
Mack, who won 65 times on various mini-tours, is the recipient of the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption, courtesy of tournament host Tiger Woods. This was supposed to be Mack’s first event on tour, but he actually made his debut three weeks ago at the Farmers Insurance Open, when fellow Advocates Pro Golf Assn. player Kamaiu Johnson had to withdraw after contracting coronavirus.
“It was a learning experience,” said Mack, the 2019 APGA Player of the Year who shot 74-75 at Torrey Pines, missing the cut by six strokes. “Just I had a couple driver issues, but other than that I played well and I think it got me ready for this week.”
Every year since 2009 at the annual tour event at Riviera, an exemption has been given to a golfer representing a minority background. In 2017, the exemption was named in honor of the late Charlie Sifford, the first Black player to compete on the tour.
It was an improbable odyssey that brought Mack to this point, one he couldn’t have predicted as a kid growing up in Flint, Mich., or at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he won 11 collegiate tournaments and envisioned a frictionless rise into the pro ranks.
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Instead, he found himself barely scraping up enough money to stay afloat after college, staying with friends, subsisting on the McDonald’s dollar menu, and using whatever remaining funds he had to buy golf balls, gloves, and cover entry fees for the next tournament. When he could no longer couch surf, he started living out of his Mustang.
“It was a tight squeeze,” he said.
Mack wasn’t the only uncomfortable one in that arrangement. His father, Willie Jr., is a social worker in Michigan who learned the game alongside his son, and agonized with him from afar in those leanest of years.
“I’d say, ‘Are you going to be staying with some friends tonight?’ ” his father recalled Wednesday from his home in Grand Blanc, Mich. “And he’d say, ‘No, I’m going to be staying in the car. I don’t want to be bugging people.’ Before he went sleep I’d call him and we’d talk and he’d say, ‘Well, I’m ready to go to sleep.’ I’d say, ‘OK, well, I’ll call you in the morning.’
“I’d call him early in the morning before I went to work — it was heartbreaking — just to make sure he was OK. The majority of the time he answered. But it was a couple times when he didn’t answer that I was concerned. I was like, ‘Oh, gosh, what’s going on? Something’s happened.’ And he said, ‘No, nothing happened. My phone wasn’t charged up.’ I’d say, `Make sure you charge your phone because that’s not good for me. I don’t sleep well and I can’t concentrate at work when I don’t hear from you.’ ”
The younger Mack had a system. He would drive to the next tournament, park between cars at a nearby hotel, and use public restrooms and any available club locker rooms to shower, dress, and freshen up for the day. He had a blanket and pillow in the car, and tinted windows for a modicum of privacy.
His low point?
“A couple times in that car, sleeping in that car and having the hotel security come in and tell you that you’ve got to move or you can’t sleep here,” he said. “Sometimes it got rough, but I always went back to what my dad said and never give up. So unless something tragic happened, I was never going to give up.”
Ultimately, he was taken in by a couple he knew in Florida, and lived in their home with them until recently he was able to get an apartment.
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He still has a daily phone call with his father, who this week is basking in the surreal excitement of it all.
“I’m working from home, so I probably won’t get much work done,” the elder Mack said. “I’m gonna be glued to the TV and to my cellphone, watching each shot.
“I’m just so happy for him. It’s a long time coming. Even when he played in the Farmers, and that was like at the last minute so he really didn’t get prepared like he wanted to, but that was a great experience for him to go through. It might not happen as quick as you want to sometimes, but things come into alignment when you’re trying to do something right.”
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