PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA – When the text came through Friday night telling Mackenzie Hughes he had a 9 a.m. tee time with Tiger Woods in the third round of the Players Championship, he was thrilled.
“I was really hoping I was going to get it,” Hughes said.
This from a man who had hours earlier made only his fourth cut in 17 starts this season – on the cut number, by the way – and he loved the thought of playing with Woods, whom he never had met.
“If you’re going to do Saturday early, you want to do Saturday early with Tiger,” Hughes said after shaking off two early bogeys to shoot 68 in the third round while watching Woods shoot 65 and flirt for a time with the course record.
As a matter of perspective, Hughes is a 27-year-old whose one PGA Tour victory came in late 2016 at the RSM Classic at Sea Island, leaving him 78 wins behind his Saturday playing companion.
Until their third-round tee time, Hughes’ closest brush with Woods was having lunch 5 feet from him in the player dining area at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. Hughes tried to summon the courage to introduce himself but never did.
“What was I going to say: ‘Hi, I’m Mackenzie Hughes?’” he said.
Saturday turned out to be just the right moment.
On the first tee, Hughes felt like he was in one of the final groups on a Sunday afternoon.
“Starting out, it had that feeling. That’s crazy for 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning,” Hughes said.
The two chit-chatted about various things, including football, then Hughes watched as Woods went old school, making birdies on eight of his first 12 holes. Suddenly the course record of 63, tied Friday afternoon by Webb Simpson, was in jeopardy.
Hughes was doing his own good work. In the middle of his round, he made four straight birdies, highlighted by a 72-foot birdie putt at the tough par-3 eighth that momentarily took the gallery’s attention off Woods.
“The crowd knew I was there. A couple of claps. My wife was cheering for me. When I made that putt on eight, about a 70-footer, the crowd kind of woke up like, hey, this guy is playing golf today, too. It was cool and kind of got me going a little bit.”
A bogey at No. 14 slowed Woods and when he failed to birdie the par-5 16th, the flame had been turned down, though 65 was his best score by two strokes in his 2018 comeback. When he finished his third round, Woods had jumped 60 places on the leaderboard and further impressed Hughes.
“I’ve had a pretty poor year and to be in an environment like that really gets the juices flowing. It’s 90 degrees but I can assure you had I some goosebumps and shivers and you hear some of the roars. You realize he’s doing what he’s doing and I’m kind of hanging in there, too,” Hughes said.