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Paige Mackenzie scripts return to the LPGA

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of Golfweek.

ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s 5:30 a.m. on a Friday and Paige Mackenzie is on her second cup of coffee. She and Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive” crew actually started 30 minutes later than usual on this summer day. Producer Kyle Brown has gathered the team around cubicles in the Orlando newsroom, and they’re talking about Rory McIlroy’s dominance and the fact that co-host Damon Hack, who is not present, eats gum as if it were Skittles.

It’s a low-key scene. Mackenzie and Lauren Thompson, dressed more for yoga class, are in makeup chairs by 6 a.m., having a magical cream applied below the eyes. There are tricks to looking this good before sunrise, and that includes a post-show nap.

Mackenzie, a seven-year LPGA veteran is a natural at morning TV. She’s also a bit of a ham.

“As a player, I learned early on how to be politically correct in everything I said. Moving into television, that was my biggest challenge,” she said, “actually learning to find my opinion.”

It didn’t take long.

On rare occasions, older brother Brock – her toughest critic (and biggest fan) – lets paige, 31, know when she has gone too far. Such as the time she gave Nick Price a “D” for his Presidents Cup captaincy.

“I absolutely cringed when she said it,” Brock said. “Please tell me nobody else saw that.”

For Mackenzie, an ideal ambassador for the oft-overlooked LPGA, TV work has provided an exhilarating focus while she rehabs from back surgery.

“It sounds weird,” she said, “but I get to use my brain again.”

Born in Yakima, Wash., to a couple of golf-loving pharmacists, Paige at age 8 informed her mother that a woman at their course had a really big loop in her golf swing.

She has been analyzing ever since, particularly the action of her brother, whose career at Washington overlapped Paige’s. Brock Mackenzie won in August on the PGA Tour Canada but when struggling will send swing videos to his sister.

Mary Lou Mulflur, the longtime Washington women’s coach, said she has learned over the years that girls want to be liked and guys seek respect.

“Brock taught Paige that you gain respect by being the best at what you do,” Mulflur said.

Mackenzie graduated from Washington ranked No. 1 by Golfweek in 2006, and after representing the U.S. at the Curtis Cup, entered LPGA Q-School. She opened her LPGA career the next February with a 67 in Hawaii and tied for 17th.

Then, at a tournament in Phoenix that spring, everything changed.

While on the tee, Mackenzie locked eyes with a fan who cascaded coins from one hand to the other, like a waterfall. The look on his face sent shivers down the rookie’s spine.

She asked family friends to question the stranger and discovered he had worked on the maintenance staff at Washington and carried with him a golf ball that she had signed in 2003. When Mackenzie inquired about the man at her alma mater, she was told that he had been fired. The LPGA assigned security to her group.

Mackenzie’s stalker was spotted at eight events in 2007, reducing this confident and independent woman into a frightened mess.

“I didn’t know where to turn,” she said. “I didn’t know where to go for help.”

Mackenzie couldn’t walk down a fairway that season without looking over her shoulder. She feared the man, who believed he was giving her powers through his eyes, would take a gun to the course and shoot her.

Not surprisingly, her game slumped and confidence waned.

To this day, she can’t hit a golf shot if a caddie in her group jostles tees in his bib.

Mackenzie never wanted to make excuses. When pressed, she concedes the ordeal had more of an effect than she would care to admit. She recently tried therapy.

Since joining the tour, Mackenzie cracked the top 50 on the money list only once, in 2011, and admits she has underachieved. Troublesome back disks, which prompted her to redshirt one season at Washington, wreaked havoc as a pro. There were times, her brother said, when she played with a numb leg. The pain kept her from practicing as much as she needed and inhibited her swing.

“I think she has top-20-player-in-theworld talent,” her brother said, “but she hasn’t been able to show it.”

On Feb. 7, Mackenzie underwent a microdiscectomy in which doctors harvested her bone marrow, pulled out stem cells and re-injected them into the bothersome disks.

Her recovery timeline from the experimental procedure expanded from six weeks to six months. Originally, she had intended to be back on tour for the ShopRite LPGA Classic in late May.

“Then I realized it was delusional,” said Mackenzie, who will enter the 2015 season with full LPGA status via a major medical extension. “I didn’t know what healthy was, because it had been years since I didn’t have issues with my back.”

In the meantime, Golf Channel filled her calendar with hosting duties on “Big Break Myrtle Beach” and “Playing Lessons” as well as regular appearances on “Morning Drive.”

Mackenzie lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and flies to Orlando about once a month with a Yorkie mix named Charlie. She knows the LPGA players well and works hard to develop similar insight about the PGA Tour. When Tour players tune in, she wants them to think: She gets it.

“That’s my standard,” Mackenzie said.

Charlie Rymer, a 16-year TV veteran and former Tour player, said producers often are so busy that it falls on the talent to help players such as Mackenzie transition. Rymer said it wasn’t until the beginning of his fourth year in TV that he learned the phrase “lay out” meant to stop talking, in broadcast lingo.

“They’d say ‘lay out, Charlie, lay out,’ ” he said. “I had no idea what it meant.”

Mackenzie has leaned often on Rymer for advice. He praised her instinct and fearlessness, saying she should think long and hard about putting off a chance to work full time in TV to head back to the LPGA.

Molly Solomon, executive producer and a senior vice president at Golf Channel, said Mackenzie is “perfect” for morning TV, with her keen golf intelligence, knack for explaining things and disarming charm.

“You want to hang out with her,” Solomon said.

And while Solomon admires and respects Mackenzie’s desire to get back on tour, she’d also love to see her turn that passion and energy toward a second career at Golf Channel.

When Mackenzie flew to Michigan in August to attend a board meeting at the Meijer LPGA Classic, she sat in player dining all day and caught up with friends. It’s the people she misses most.

Mackenzie hopes to work Golf Channel tapings around her playing schedule next year. She’s hooked.

“Golf at some point becomes kind of automatic,” she said. Next year will be my eighth year of professional golf, 25th year of competitive golf.

“This (TV) is different every day.”

Brock Mackenzie, for one, would like to see his sister rededicate herself to being great inside the ropes.

“I would love to see her put her whole heart in it and see what she can do next year,” he said.

Winning has its perks, too.

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