PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | No matter where he goes, William McGirt is never far from where he’s been.
On Thursday, McGirt found himself atop the first-round leaderboard at the Players Championship, having pieced together a 5-under-par 67 on a TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course that makes him as comfortable as a pair of shoes three sizes too small.
Having won the Memorial Tournament last year and been among the leaders at The Masters last month for two days, McGirt’s collection of mini-tour tales is now part of his persona along with his curly hair that bushes around from beneath the cap he wears. If he was essentially unknown outside the mini-tour world and portions of the Carolinas where he was born and still lives, that has changed with McGirt’s increased television time.
He is in danger of losing his airport anonymity.
There is no chance, however, of McGirt forgetting how he got here.
Just this week, the 37-year old Spartanburg, S.C., resident found himself sitting in the dining room at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, looking out at the 18th green where he made a brilliant up-and-down par save to beat Jon Curran in a sudden-death playoff for his first and – so far – only Tour victory.
Jack’s place Monday night. Top of the Players Championship leaderboard on Thursday.
“It’s amazing what a little bit of confidence will do,” McGirt said Thursday afternoon after breaking 70 for only the second time in 13 trips around the Pete Dye puzzle.
“The win last year was huge for my confidence, and then playing well (T10) at the PGA (Championship) last (August), kind of proved to myself that, hey, I can play golf at the major-championship level. And then obviously playing well for the first two-and-a-half days at Augusta. So more than anything, it’s more of a confidence thing that you take away from it.”
There’s an intentionally glittery feel to the Players Championship, which owns the unique distinction of being the most significant event on the PGA Tour outside the major championships. It created its own category with the Stadium Course’s telegenic design, particularly the disaster-daring closing holes.
There is also a $1.89-million check to the winner and though virtually every player in the field is now accustomed to golf life at the highest end of the spectrum, it wasn’t that long ago that McGirt was driving a 2000 Honda Passport that finally died after 214,000 mini-tour miles.
He moved up to a Honda Accord about a decade ago and one of the few splurges he has allowed himself since hitting it big is a Yukon XL Denali that’s big enough for him, his wife, their two children and anything else they want to take with them.
McGirt will move into a new house Monday, complete with a golf simulator in the basement, but otherwise he’s content to keep his money where he can spend it later in life. Having a comfortable place to sleep wasn’t always an option for him.
“There for a while I would stop at the (state) welcome center and pick up the magazine to try to find a hotel deal,” McGirt said. “There were several times you would go to bed and push the dresser in front of the door. You never knew.
“I slept fully clothed several times. I’ve slept in blue jeans and a T-shirt and thought about putting full rain gear on.”
Like a lot of other guys in the Players field, McGirt played for meal money many times. This is the goal, the dream, the top of the mountain. It defies reality in a sense, the money and perks that come when a player hits it big on the biggest stage.
“When you’re out there (on the mini-tours), you’re just trying to figure out how you’re not going to have to get McDonald’s every day,” McGirt said. “Any time you made money and got a check that was bigger than what you put in, you felt great about it.”
The Stadium Course never has been one of McGirt’s favorites and one good round Thursday won’t immediately change his opinion of it. He shot 65 on Friday here last year then went 76-75 on the weekend.
The slender margin between good and bad, a feature of Pete Dye courses, has frustrated McGirt.
“I won’t say you have to be lucky to win here but you have to get lucky from time to time. There’s a lot of luck involved around this place,” McGirt said. “I’ve hit several where you feel like you’ve got your right foot on your left shoulder trying to hit it between your legs. You’re just like, whatever.”
When Memorial officials asked if McGirt would interrupt his Players preparation to attend media day for the event earlier this week, he liked the idea.
“It’s nice to come in here with a different frame of mind,” said McGirt, who said he has considered showing up on Thursday morning with no practice time here. “If I’d been here since Monday night I’d probably already have one or two clubs with some dings in them, maybe a bend. I don’t know if the locker door would still be on.”
It was just one good round on a summer-like Thursday. Three long days remain but McGirt has never been afraid of where he’s going because he knows where he’s been.