LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | Of all the ways Willie Mack III envisioned getting his first start on the PGA Tour – and those nights when he slept in his car while chasing a golf career gave him plenty of time to wonder – this wasn’t one of them.
Mack finds himself in the field in the Farmers Insurance Open this week because his friend Kamaiu Johnson, who had been granted a sponsor exemption, was forced to withdraw after testing positive for COVID-19.
Johnson’s disappointment was later overshadowed when he posted on social media that his mother had been taken to the hospital as she battles the virus while he is in quarantine.
“This is turning into a nightmare from hell. My mom has just been rush(ed) to the hospital not being able to breathe due to COVID-19. Pray for my family please,” Johnson posted late Tuesday.
It would have been Johnson’s first PGA Tour start and, like Mack, he was at Torrey Pines a year ago, playing a one-day Advocates Professional Golf Association event on the North Course while the Farmers was finishing on the South Course.
They talked then about their personal and professional paths, playing the predominantly Black APGA mini tour, eventually earning sponsorship deals with Farmers Insurance. The company has aligned itself with the APGA and worked to provide more opportunities for minority golfers.
After a difficult week, Johnson got good news Thursday when the Honda Classic announced it will give him a spot in its field in March.
“As I said when I first learned that I had to withdraw, a fork in the road often has an interesting way of leading to new opportunities,” Johnson posted on social media.
Meanwhile, Mack – who was given the Charlie Sifford exemption into the Genesis Invitational in two weeks at Riviera Country Club for what would have been his first PGA Tour start – inherited what both saw as the chance of a lifetime.
“I know it’s a dream come true for both of us … and it’s just an unfortunate situation. I’m friends with Kamaiu, so I talk to him all the time, and I know he was so excited to play this week and I was cheering him on,” Mack said.
“I’m just going to go out there this week and not only play for me, but also play for him.”
Mack shot 2-over-par 74 in Thursday’s first round, playing the North Course. Not great. Not bad.
While Johnson came to golf through a stranger who introduced him to the game in Tallahassee, Florida, Mack grew up playing a par-3 course in Flint, Michigan, inspired by Tiger Woods. He was good enough to earn a scholarship at Bethune-Cookman University where he won 12 college tournaments while also becoming the only Black player to have won the Michigan Amateur (2011).
He was good enough to make it to the second stage of PGA Tour qualifying school nearly a decade ago but that’s as close as he got his goal – until now.
“I just never quit,” Mack said. “My parents always taught me, if you start something, you finish it. I just always had that mindset and that mindset will always stick with me.”
Think for a moment about how hard golf is when your car is your bed for more than a year. That’s why when the Tiger Woods Foundation called to offer Mack a spot in the Genesis Invitational, he immediately called his father.
“It was a dream come true. After I got off the phone, I called my dad and he kind of – he started crying. Kind of made me tear up,” Mack said.
Last year at Torrey Pines, Mack and Johnson were part of a group that joined Rickie Fowler to give a clinic to kids. This year, Mack jumped at the chance to play a Tuesday practice round with Fowler and Gary Woodland.
Had Johnson been able to play this week, Mack was planning to play in the APGA one-day event at a San Diego-area course on Thursday then tee it up again on Torrey Pines’ North Course Saturday for the same event he played here a year ago.
Literally, so close and yet so far.
Not that Mack needs any reminders about the difference in where he typically plays and where he’s spending two of the next three weeks.
“We actually played at one of the tournaments last year, I guess they didn’t tell the tour that they were aerating a week before or a couple days (before), so it was just like chipping,” Mack said. “Just basic little chips, making those 2-footers, those become difficult when you have eight holes in the way.”
This week, the greens are pristine.
There is a $7.5 million purse, a portion of which will go to Mack if he can make the cut. Five months from now the U.S. Open will be played on the South Course.
The goal was simple.
“I’m trying to win just like everybody else, that’s every tournament I go to,” Mack said.
Mack was 1-under par through 13 holes on Thursday before three late bogeys sabotaged the good work he’d done earlier in the round.
Was it fun, finally teeing it up on the PGA Tour?
“It was,” Mack said, “until those bogeys at the end.”
There was nothing different about that.
Top: Willie Mack III tees off on No. 14 Thursday during the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines South. Photo: Ben Jared, PGA Tour via Getty Images
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?