Mackenzie Hughes sinks 'putt of my life' to win RSM Classic playoff

Mackenzie Hughes

Mackenzie Hughes sinks 'putt of my life' to win RSM Classic playoff

PGA Tour

Mackenzie Hughes sinks 'putt of my life' to win RSM Classic playoff

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ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Sea Island Golf Club is a sleepy, sweet-tea kind of setting that doesn’t encounter a lot of rowdy fist-pumping, especially shortly after 8 a.m. on a quiet and brisk Monday.

But rookie Mackenzie Hughes of Canada stood on the back of the green on the 17th hole at Seaside, the third hole of a playoff at the RSM Classic (and Monday’s first and only hole), facing likely elimination if he couldn’t coax his 18-footer from just off the green to fall. When it did, Hughes had plenty to celebrate. He’d at least survived. And then, as one by one, Blayne Barber, Henrik Norlander and veteran Camilo Villegas all missed par putts, the trophy was his.

“It’s just an incredible feeling,” he said.

Though Monday’s four-man resumption of Sunday’s original five-man playoff was anyone’s to win, in earnest, no player had more invested into the week than Hughes, 25, who had been atop the leaderboard since opening with a sizzling 9-under 61 on Thursday at the same Seaside Course.

All four players missed the green at the 189-yard, par-3 17th in the playoff, and Hughes’ pitch from behind the green didn’t even reach the putting surface, leaving him first to putt. His thought process? The putt after the one he was about to hit really didn’t matter, so why not go for broke? With all four players trying to find a way to make a par, Hughes was the lone player to deliver.

“If I don’t make the putt, I’m probably done,” Hughes said. “I needed to flip things around. Everybody had some work left (for par). If I make mine first, it makes everybody’s job harder.”

His putt was struck solidly, and made a perfect turn from left to right, tracking to the hole, unlike his 10-footer for birdie to win that had grazed the left edge at No. 18 some 14 hours earlier.

“About a foot from the hole,” he said of Monday’s par effort, “I knew it was right in the heart. It was such a good feeling.”

The victory is significant. It arrives in what was Hughes’ ninth career Tour start, his fifth as a rookie, and not only delivers instant financial security (the winner’s check is $1,080,000), but job security, too. He is exempt through 2018-19. It propels him into January’s Tournament of Champions as well as the Masters at Augusta National in April. That will be only his second start in a major championship (2013 U.S. Open).

Monday morning on the coast of Georgia was cool and crisp, and guaranteed to reward at least one golfer who rose early and donned multiple layers with a career-changing kind of morning.

With the RSM Classic unable to raise a winner’s arm when darkness fell on Sunday after two playoff holes, Barber, Norlander, Villegas and Hughes, the rookie, gathered again first-thing Monday to decide a champion.

The assignment was tougher than the one they had directly at the end of regulation. This time, all four had to sleep on thoughts of just how big Monday morning could be in their careers.

All but Villegas were trying to land their first PGA Tour victory. Barber, 26, a former Walker Cupper who finished 101st in the FedEx Cup last season, and Hughes, who won on, and graduated from, the Web.com Tour in 2016, already had full status for this season.

Villegas, who turns 36 next month, is a four-time champion on the Tour, but had been winless since the 2014 Wyndham Championship. Having finished 152nd in the FedEx Cup a year ago, he is playing out of the past champions category in priority rankings. Before this week, the 2014 victory at Wyndham also marked Villegas’ last top 10 on Tour.

He didn’t win, but he hopes that his good play at Sea Island will set him on a better path in 2017. Once one of the Tour’s hot players on the rise, he said he has been humbled by his struggles.

“Oh, man, I could write a book on that one,” Villegas said on the weekend. “Too many things. I think you become a little more grateful, man. I’ve been lucky to play 11 consecutive years on the PGA Tour. It’s funny, you don’t want to be somewhere else. But when you struggle a little bit, you just are thankful for being able to do what you do.”

Norlander, whose best finish in 2015-16 was a tie for 25th at the Travelers Championship, was competing at Sea Island on the generosity of a sponsor’s exemption. He had a chance to earn a PGA Tour card at the Web.com Tour Finals, but when Hurricane Matthew wiped out the Tour Championship outside Jacksonville, he was $788 short.

Norlander, Barber and Villegas (and Billy Horschel, eliminated Sunday) earned $396,00 for their runner-up showing. For Norlander, it’s more than he earned in 21 starts last season. All the playoff participants also earned spots in the field at the Tour’s next open event, which is January’s Sony Open in Hawaii.

The seven-tournament fall portion of the PGA Tour schedule finished with a pair of first-time winners, as Hughes joined fellow Web.com grad Cody Gribble, who won the Sanderson Farms Championship. And with that, folks, the PGA Tour’s 2016-17 wraparound season heads to an intermission.

For Hughes, a newlywed (he got married just weeks ago) who now needs to make Hawaii travel arrangements, it is going to be quite a holiday season. He played only one short hole on Monday, and walked away with just a par, but it’s one he never will forget. He made sure to give a shout-out to Dundas Valley Golf & Curling Club, his home club in Hamilton, Ontario, where the members surely were watching.

“You know, I made the putt of my life right there,” Hughes said. “Downhill, breaking a little left to right. I mean, I don’t know how I made it, but I did, so I’m over the moon.”

It was certainly deserving of a fist-pump or two.

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