PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s biggest, glitziest showcase, is played upon a golf course that is as democratic as any in the land. Meaning, all types of players and games can, and have, won on the Stadium Course, some who possess great power (Tiger Woods, Jason Day) and others who don’t (Fred Funk, Tim Clark).
Likewise, the Tour itself is an eclectic mix of talent, some players born with silver spoons groomed to be champions, and others who’ve had to fight and scratch for everything they have. William McGirt’s path to the PGA Tour was filled by small-town mini-tour stops and financial challenges and so many self-doubts that left him wondering just seven years ago if pursuing this crazy dream were even worth his troubles.
In the end, every bit of sweat has paid off. Thursday, he opened The Players with a breezy, 5-under 67, only his second sub-70 score in 13 rounds here. He and Canadian rookie Mackenzie Hughes are co-leaders after a wild opening day when many established stars started well but struggled to finish.
Did McGirt see a hot round at the Stadium coming? Not really. Not at this place. In fact, it’s so hit and miss, and so demanding, he has toyed with the thought of not playing a single practice hole (as Phil Mickelson, who shot 70, did), and just showing up on the first tee on Thursday. But he ended up playing some practice holes this week, and Thursday performed quite nicely, charging up the leaderboard with a pair of eagles on the incoming nine, making 3s at both the 11th and 16th holes.
Tuesday, he made a quick flight to Columbus, Ohio, to attend a media day for The Memorial, the tournament which he broke through to win last June in his 165th PGA Tour start. Memorial tournament director Dan Sullivan knew McGirt was busy with a big week in Florida, and said he’d understand if McGirt didn’t attend in Ohio.
“I said, ‘Dan, I waited 38 years (to defend his first PGA Tour title),” McGirt told him. “I’m not missing, OK?”
Being at Muirfield Village filled McGirt with good memories, and good feelings, and confident thoughts. Yes, he could get it done, winning on the world’s biggest and mightiest Tour. He’d finally proven it. Besides, being at Muirfield and re-enacting his terrific up-and-down from a bunker in a playoff was far better than beating his head against the proverbial wall early this week at the Stadium Course, an exacting place that quickly can shred a golfer’s confidence.
“I’m not saying that anybody has been lucky … but there’s a lot of luck involved around this place,” he said. “When you hit a shot that’s almost good, but not quite, having it not kick into the absolute worst spot imaginable. I’ve hit several out here, when you get over there, you feel that you have your right foot on your left shoulder, trying to hit it between your legs. It’s just one of those places that you’re just like, ‘Ok, whatever.’”
McGirt, who played collegiately at tiny Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., was asked Thursday afternoon to name all the mini-tours upon which he competed. It might have been easier to name all the state capitals. He certainly was not able to do it on a single hand, the names rolling from his tongue: Gateway Tour. Tar Heel Tour. U.S. Pro Golf Tour. Carolina Mountain Tour. Carolinas Pro Tour. All-Star Tour. Hooters Tour.
“I know I’m forgetting a couple,” he said. He’d competed on the mini-tours from 2004-10, plunking down his four-figure entry fee for Q-School for pretty much one last time. He was able to at least secure some limited status on the Web.com.
The mini-tours are golf’s version of some wild MMA melee, with players competing for their own money and only the strong surviving. There’s a lot of talent out there, but some don’t stay with the dream.
“Thing is, you look at the mini-tours and there’s a thousand golfers good enough to play out here,” McGirt said.
“When you’re out there, you’re just trying to figure out how you’re not going to have to eat at McDonald’s every day,” McGirt said. “This is always the goal, but never would I say it’s easily achievable.”
Playing for table scraps marks a far cry from this week, where pros will divide a purse of $10.5 million. The winner will walk with nearly $1.9 million. That’s a lot of Big Macs.
McGirt traveled all over the Atlantic corridor, running up 214,000 miles on a Honda Passport until its transmission finally died. He ate Ramen noodles, and sometimes slept in motel rooms with three or four other players sprawled everywhere to save money.
Did he ever collect a check for, say, $2,000 that felt like $100,000 at the time?
“Every check felt like a hundred (grand) out there,” he said. “Any time you made money, or got a check that was bigger than what you’d spent, you felt great.”
McGirt is closing in on $10 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour, but he refuses to forget the journey that got him here. He said he hasn’t really splurged on anything big, though he and his wife, Sarah, will close on a new house in Spartanburg on Monday, with a customized basement that will include a golf simulator.
You’d think McGirt would have reached a point where he’s crept beyond that thin line that defines success, and would not need to look back. But that’s simply not how he’s wired. The mini-tour days stay close to him. They fuel him. He doesn’t want to forget.
“I don’t think you ever think it’s going to be in your rear view,” he said Thursday afternoon. “You’re always going to struggle in this game. I mean, nobody’s ever on top of this game forever. It seemed like Tiger was for a while, but look at the last eight or 10 years.
“I think it’s important to remember those times, too, to remind you, hey, 10 years ago you were eating Ramen noodles and Vienna sausages and making your own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to save money. I think it’s good to always keep that in the back of your mind – and try not to get too big for your britches.”