After needing two extra holes to beat Sepp Straka to win the Sanderson Farms Championship late Sunday afternoon followed by the obligatory round of interviews, handshakes and smiles, Mackenzie Hughes didn’t have much time to celebrate.
Eventually, Hughes and his wife, Jenna, along with their two young children, settled into a plane for the ride home to North Carolina.
There was pizza for everyone and a few beers for Hughes, whose wife is pregnant with their third child, leaving the brews for him. Not exactly a wild night, but it was a deeply satisfying one.
One week earlier, Hughes was home in Charlotte while the Presidents Cup was being played a few miles away at Quail Hollow Club. Hughes had hoped to be part of captain Trevor Immelman’s International team and, nothing against any of the eight at-large picks on the team, but Hughes thought he belonged.
Immelman had to disappoint someone, and Hughes turned out to be one of those.
“It ate at me a little that week,” Hughes said. “I watched it, and there was a lot of chatter while I was home. I couldn’t look away from it. It was always somewhere in your face. I wanted to be on the team really badly. I didn’t play the way I’d like to leading up to the picks, but I still thought I’d be a big asset to the team. My match-play record the last couple of years has been good, and match play comes down to putting.
“I know they were trying to find the right fits for Quail Hollow. Having good putters on your team really makes for a compelling team and good matches. The way they ended up, a lot of time they were on No. 18 and it came down to a guy needing to make the putt.”
At the Sanderson Farms Championship, Hughes made seemingly every putt he needed coming in on Sunday, making three key par saves over the final nine holes in regulation then finishing off Straka on the second extra hole with a birdie putt that never considered missing.
Typically subdued by nature, Hughes let loose with a proper fist pump when he had secured his second career victory, almost six years after his first victory, in the RSM Classic.
Though the Sanderson event didn’t have the highest-profile field of the year, it had the bonus benefit of being the second tournament in the wraparound season, effectively giving Hughes a three-year tour exemption because it came so early in the new season.
“Winning in the fall is a lot of fun,” Hughes said. “Just winning, period, is something we don’t experience super often.”
“I’ve had some good years consecutively, but I’ve been lacking the wins. That’s what the best players do. They don’t just have great tournaments; they win tournaments.” – Mackenzie Hughes
Hughes has been quietly efficient in his tour career. Though he slipped to 160th in the FedEx Cup points race in the 2017-18 season, he finished 14th two years later and has been inside the top 70 in each of the two previous seasons.
Good but not great.
Hughes thought there was more to dig out of his game.
He began working with trainer Mike Carroll in California after discovering him online during COVID-induced downtime. Hughes liked Carroll’s methods, but he didn’t commit to consistently putting in the time at the gym.
Recently recommitted to his training, Hughes began working with swing coach Josh Gregory three weeks ago in the season opener in Napa, California, where he tied for 25th.
Two weeks later, Hughes won again.
“I’ve had three runners-up and a couple of thirds since (winning at) Sea Island,” Hughes said. “I knew it was close. I knew it was there. I’ve had some good years consecutively, but I’ve been lacking the wins. That’s what the best players do. They don’t just have great tournaments; they win tournaments.”
Hughes hasn’t been a short hitter, but he thought that he needed more distance. Through his training and, more recently, with Gregory, he’s focused on increasing his ball speed. It’s why even on some tournament days Hughes will make 10 driver swings as hard as he can, building toward a distant target.
His ball speed is now in the 175-mph range, still short of what the bombers reach, but enough to allow him to look at holes differently without sacrificing a measure of accuracy.
Hughes has seen and heard the cautionary tales about chasing distance.
“I’ve always thought if you do it the right way, it’s a benefit, not a hindrance,” he said. “I know there are guys who chased distance and went the other way, but I’ve felt I had a good plan and I’m confident in it.
“So far it’s paying off nicely. I’m just scratching the surface of it. It’s something to keep working on and see where it takes me.”
It was reassuring to Hughes that he didn’t have his best stuff in Mississippi when he won, but he worked through it. When he put himself out of position, he took his time, made prudent decisions and didn’t let the prospect of losing a tournament dominate his mind.
He felt in control of what was happening.
“I felt good. Certain moments were testing, but I had a good head on my shoulders. I just kept telling myself the right things. There’s been as much growth mentally as physically.
“I see myself as a top-20 or -30 player in the world. It just takes a bit of hard work. I put my head down and I’ve done the work. It’s nice to see it pay off a little bit.”
The next Presidents Cup is two years away in Montreal. Hughes, Canadian by birth, intends to be part of it.
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