ERIN, Wis. – In 1961, Mack Champ boarded a bus in Amarillo, Texas, on the way home from basic training. The 19-year-old had enlisted in the Air Force and was making the 600-mile journey back to Columbus to tell mom he was going overseas.
When the bus stopped in College Station, Champ tried to get a hamburger but workers wouldn’t serve him at the whites-only counter. He got back on the bus.
Champ didn’t share that story with his family until more than 50 years later, when grandson Cameron signed with Texas A&M to play college golf. The university, of course, is located in College Station.
“I tell Cameron it’s not just where you come from,” Mack said. “It’s where you’re going.”
Mack, 76, was hooked up to a dialysis machine back home in suburban Sacramento when Cameron wrapped up his second round at the 117th U.S. Open. The 22-year-old college senior posted a 3-under 69 at Erin Hills to sit two shots off the lead.
“He did what?” an emotional Mack said in disbelief. “I’ve got to call my brother in Texas.”
It was “Pops” who bought Cameron his first set of plastic clubs at age 2 1/2. Mack still has them. Cameron’s dad, Jeff, was a talented catcher whose professional baseball career was derailed by injury. Jeff never has played golf, but understands what it takes to perform on such a pressurized stage.
“The way he’s carrying himself today,” said Jeff, “it’s pretty amazing for a father.”
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The first time Sean Foley watched a 15-year-old Cameron Champ hit golf balls, Foley called his wife and told her to cancel everything on his schedule the next day.
“I was so intrigued,” Foley said. “I’d never seen speed like this.”
But it wasn’t just the speed. Foley couldn’t get over how quickly Champ could implement something new into his swing. Early in the week at Erin Hills, Foley worked with Champ on a move that would that would take the compression off his lower back. Champ first struggled with pain from bulging discs his freshman year at A&M. (It was Phil Mickelson’s physical therapist, Tom Boers, who ultimately brought relief, Jeff said.)
Foley said the new move actually made Champ’s swing more efficient and his ball speed even faster at 198 mph. That’s 10 mph more than the fastest on Tour.
“We’re basically looking at Usain Bolt,” Foley said.
Like Dustin Johnson, Champ is a first-class athlete who happened to choose golf. The speed was always there. Foley helped keep it in the ballpark.
“When I was younger,” said Champ, “it went everywhere.”
Last Sunday at Erin Hills, Champ played a practice round with British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and outdrove him by 50 yards. Champ didn’t say anything, of course.
“I don’t talk much when I play,” said the humble, well-mannered Champ. “I stick to myself.”
The next day Champ teed it up with Rory McIlroy. The U.S. Open contender met his heroes and came to the realization that he can hang. Champ even led the field in driving in Round 1 with an average of 349.4 yards.
“He’s basically at the point where he’s like the U.S. military,” Foley said. “He’s just weaponized.”
The only thing Foley can’t teach Champ is experience; he’s getting it now.
Thursday was Champ’s 22nd birthday, and after the round his girlfriend ordered a cake at the hotel. It was a late night and a quick turnaround for the major rookie, and when he sat down for breakfast the next morning, Jeff said his son could barely eat.
Imagine what the weekend will feel like.
“It’s obviously going to be in my head, to be honest,” Champ said. “Like I said, this is all new for me.”
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Mack Champ grew in a family of 10 children in tiny Columbus, about 75 miles west of Houston. He and his brothers caddied at a nine-hole course where, if they carried two bags, would make them more money than their parents earned in a day. Blacks couldn’t play then, so Mack didn’t take up the game until he served overseas in Germany, England and France. It was in Germany that Mack met and married Lulu, who is white. They had Jeff while Mack was stationed in London. Mack wanted to move back home to Texas when his overseas duties had ended.
“He was told if he goes back to Texas and walked off the base with a white lady, he’d go to jail,” Jeff said. “That’s how he ended up in California.”
Cameron is also the child of a bi-racial marriage.
When Lulu died two years ago, Cameron shaved her name on the side of his head for a tournament. He’s a quiet guy, but a thoughtful one. Jeff reminds him often where credit is due.
“The story is pretty amazing,” Jeff said. “I always teach him it’s not about you. It’s about your grandfather who got you into this game, who sacrificed things for you.”
Foley said Jeff can be a model for all parents who get “a little too overboard.” Jeff backed off, Foley said, and did what was best for his kid. That’s why Cameron is flourishing.
After Cameron birdied the 18th hole to shoot Friday’s second-lowest round, his mom Lisa recalled how cool they all thought it would be earlier in the week if Cameron made the cut.
Look at him now.
While Cameron turns heads with his driver, younger sister Madison, who is at Erin Hills, prefers to putt. She too is a product of the First Tee, and for the past 11 years has taken part in Sacramento’s California Eagles program for those with special needs. Twenty-year-old Madison, who has autism, frequently wins the weekly putting contests.
“If she would only hit her driver,” Lisa said.
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Cameron Champ, who grew up idolizing Tiger Woods, certainly has the genes, the natural talent, and the name – my goodness what a name – to potentially move the needle in a mighty way. He has captured only one college tournament to date, but the venue, Chicago’s Olympia Fields, is telling. Foley, who is as much a mentor and a brother to Champ as he is a coach, likes to look at his junior players and think ahead to what their skill-set needs to look like at age 22.
“He has evolved into the player that I thought he needed to be,” Foley said.
Now the masses have taken notice.
Mack started dialysis for his kidneys on Jan. 16, and the regimen makes it difficult to travel. He was overjoyed to hear news of his grandson’s success, and couldn’t wait to get home to watch what his DVR. His only wish was that he was in Wisconsin to see it. Lulu too.
“So much joy,” said Mack, through heaving sobs. “It’s just amazing where we’ve come from.”
And where they’re going.