PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Until they both stepped onto the first tee at TPC Sawgrass on Saturday morning, Mackenzie Hughes had never met Tiger Woods, but that was due more to nerves than circumstances.
Two months ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the one-time PGA Tour winner shared a locker room lunch table at Bay Hill with the 79-time winner. His internal voice urged, “Introduce yourself, introduce yourself!’ but he just couldn’t muster the courage. “I had no valid excuse to say, ‘Hey, I’m Mackenzie Hughes,’ so I just sat there quietly,” he said.
Woods will likely recognize the 27-year-old Canadian going forward after their third-round walk at the Players Championship. While Woods went low early – eventually shooting 65 – Hughes held his own with a 68 to finish at 5 under. It’s a round that has more than sentimental importance for a man whose lone victory came at the RSM Classic in late 2016. He has missed the cut in 13 of his 16 starts this season, hasn’t logged a single top-50 finish, and doesn’t break the top 120 in any major statistical performance category.
“I’ve had a pretty poor year and to be in an environment like that really gets the juices flowing,” Hughes said. “It’s 90 degrees but I can assure you I had goosebumps and shivers at times out there when you hear some of the roars and realize, ‘Hey, I’m playing with Tiger Woods!’ It was fun.”
Hughes got the news of his pairing by text Friday night.
“I was really excited. He’s someone I’ve looked up to my whole life,” he said. “Total excitement. You want to play with those guys, be in that cauldron.”
He smiled wryly. “If you’re going to do Saturday early, you might as well do Saturday early with Tiger.”
After signing his card, Hughes chatted with media against a constant chorus of kids chanting the name of his playing group mate. There was a time when he would have been doing the same.
“I’ve always been a huge fan. It was kind of fun, him out there thinking like I’m asking stuff about him,” Hughes said. “But I pretty much know everything about him because I’m a huge fan. I tried to play it cool and not sound like a total dork.”
The circus atmosphere of playing with the 14-time major winner is often enough to rattle seasoned veterans, much less near-rookies on a run of poor form who are suddenly paired with their idol. There were early signs that Hughes might be overwhelmed by the scene. He double-bogeyed the third and made bogey at No. 6, which he admitted was due to rushing a short putt to get out of the way.
“The amount of yelling, all the comments. I don’t know how he does it every day,” Hughes said. “I thought there might be more yelling before I hit the ball. But the crowd was respectful. They cheered at the right time, said their inappropriate things at the right time.”
“There was a guy, he was talking to Joe (La Cava, Woods’s caddie). He goes, ‘Hey Joe, I got this glove three years ago and I need Tiger to sign it after the round, OK?’ Joe was like, ‘Oh sure thing, bud. You got it. Anything you want’,” Hughes recalled with a shake of his head. “You’re not getting that signed. And you’re not a kid, so you’ve got less chance.”
Four consecutive birdies from the seventh hole ensured that Hughes wasn’t entirely invisible to the large gallery.
“The crowd knew I was there, got a couple of claps. My wife was cheering for me,” he said. “When I made that putt on eight from the front of the green, a 70-footer, the crowd kind of woke up and said, ‘Oh this guy is playing golf today too’.”
So having finally met his hero, what did they talk about for more than four hours?
“I was careful to pick my spots. We talked about football. Standard stuff,” Hughes said. “It was cool to get to know him a little. On the first tee I was definitely a little nervous. It was a great day.”