Cameron Champ wins Safeway Open: 'This one was for you, Pops'

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Cameron Champ wins Safeway Open: 'This one was for you, Pops'

PGA Tour

Cameron Champ wins Safeway Open: 'This one was for you, Pops'

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NAPA, Calif. – The tears started rolling as soon as Cameron Champ holed the winning putt at the Safeway Open.

All the emotions of playing with a heavy heart came pouring out, first in a bear hug with his caddie, Kurt Kowaluk and then with a longer, deeper embrace with his father, Jeff, who held a phone in his left hand so Cameron could tell Grandpa Mack, back at the family home in Sacramento, “This one was for you, Pops.”

Champ, 24, wasn’t even sure if he was going to compete this week at Silverado Resort and Spa’s North Course.

It was only at the conclusion of his run in the FedEx Cup Playoffs last month that his family shared with him the full extent of Mack’s diagnosis: Stage IV stomach cancer. In trying to protect Champ from the worst of it, they waited until he got home from the Sanderson Farms Championship last Sunday to tell Cam that Mack, 78, the man he affectionately calls “Pops,” had entered hospice at the family home some 60 miles away in Sacramento.

Mack is a fighter, who survived a kidney transplant at age 75. Outside of popsicles, he hasn’t eaten out in three weeks, Jeff said, yet he managed to sit up outside of his bed to watch the final-round broadcast.

SAFEWAY OPEN: Scores | Photos | Trophies | Winner’s bag

“He does good, enjoys the days, but sometimes he’ll mention he’s kind of done,” Cameron said. “He feels like he doesn’t want to fight anymore.”

It was Mack who bought Cam his first set of plastic clubs at age 2 ½ and introduced Cam to the game at Foothill Golf Course in Sacramento. With both parents at work, Cam remembers spending more time at his grandparent’s home than his own during his youth and turned their backyard into his personal driving range.

“We could hit it over the house and it would fall directly into the backyard,” Cameron explained. “So, we just hit them back and forth, Wiffle balls, to each other. I think it just started from that.”

A view of Cameron Champ’s shoes with an inscription for his grandfather, Mack, who is battling Stage IV stomach cancer, during the final round of the Safeway Open at the Silverado Resort on September 29, 2019 in Napa, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

You have to go back farther still for the real start of this family love affair with golf. Mack fell hard for the game as a caddie in Texas in the 1950’s. But he was barred from playing because of the color of his skin. He didn’t play his first round until 1965 in England, where he was stationed at an Air Force base.

Mack was overseas in Germany when he fell even harder for Lulu, who is white. Jeff was born while the couple was stationed in London, and considered moving back to Texas when he finished his overseas duties.
“He was told if he goes back to Texas and walked off the base with a white lady, he’d go to jail,” Jeff told Golfweek in 2017. “That’s how he ended up in California.

Jeff was a baseball player, whose career was derailed by injury but Mack made sure golf didn’t skip another generation. He was a fixture at Junior Tour of Northern California golf events throughout the region, including an all-start event hosted at Silverado Resort when Cameron was 13. Pops even caddied for Cameron at the First Tee Open at age 71. Their bond is stronger than just golf.

“He’s someone I want to be someday, someone I strive to be,” Cameron said. “My father’s my hero, but I think all together, if me and him sat down and talked, I think Grandpa’s our hero.”

Champ made the last-minute decision to play payoff. He commuted back and forth during the early rounds to see Pops and he wrote his Grandfather’s name on his shoes. On Friday, Cameron said he nearly broke into tears on the first tee. But Pops told him to keep his focus. On Saturday, he shot a bogey-free 67 in swirling winds to open up a three-stroke lead. In the final round, Cameron one-putted the first four holes and birdied three of his first six. He stretched his lead to as many as five strokes, chipped in for a momentum-saving par at 11 and looked to be coasting to his second Tour title in as many years. But after overcooking a pitch from 48 yards at 17, he made bogey to drop to 16-under and his lead was gone.

“At least I made him think about it a little bit, didn’t I?” said Adam Hadwin, who rallied with a trio of birdies for a final-round 67 and a runner-up finish.

When it mattered most, Champ crushed a drive 369 yards on 18, leaving himself an 8 iron to the green at the par 5.

“8-iron, that’s crazy,” said Johnny Miller, part of the ownership group at Silverado Resort, during the trophy ceremony. “Folks, you’re used to hitting an 8-iron at 18, too, but it’s your third shot.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Miller had hopped on The Golf Channel broadcast and told his former colleague Roger Maltbie, “In about two years you might be saying what you said about Tiger at Pebble Beach in 2000 – that it’s not a fair fight with how far he hits it.”

“If he just improves a notch or two, he might the guy,” Miller added after the trophy ceremony. “He might be another Koepka. He said he was more excited than nervous. There aren’t a lot of guys like that.”

Champ struggled to live up to high expectations after winning the 2018 Sanderson Farms Championship last October in his second Tour start of his rookie season. He hadn’t recorded a top-10 finish since the 2018 RSM Classic in November. But Champ used his prodigious length – he averaged 337.1 yards off the tee – to dominate the par 5s at Silverado, and led the field in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee, SG: Tee To Green, and scrambling. That’s a deadly combination.

“When he’s hitting it straight, it’s hard to catch up because he’s 40 (yards) ahead of me and he’s got wedge or 9-iron when I’m hitting 5-iron,” Colin Morikawa said. “But it’s awesome to watch.”

Cameron Champ reacts to winning the final round of the Safeway Open at the Silverado Resort on September 29, 2019 in Napa, California. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Champ’s swing instructor Sean Foley says that former World No. 1 Dustin Johnson has provided the blueprint for how bombers can learn to dial in their wedge game. If it took Johnson 10 years to become a world beater, it should take Champ half the time. Foley compared it to high jumpers who modeled their style after American athlete Dick Fosbury, who popularized the Fosbury Flop.

“It always takes less time. Once Fosbury went over, everyone went over that way,” Foley explained. “If he dials in, he’ll be very good. All the bombers took a while to learn to hit a wedge.”

Champ’s short game was the difference. He ranked 185th on Tour last season in scrambling. Foley joked that he couldn’t hit a chip in the ocean from the beach, but they’ve worked to improve his technique and this week Champ got up-and-down on a career-best 17 of 19 occasions. After coming up short with his second shot at 18, Champ clipped his chip perfectly and it checked inside of 4 feet from the hole. He canned the birdie putt for a final-round 69 and 72-hole aggregate of 17-under 271. Among the many fruits of his labor, Champ earned his first invite to the Masters.

“That was my last gift to him,” Cameron said, speaking of Mack. “I told myself I’m going to make the Masters, I’m going to figure out a way, play my butt off. If he can hold on until April, that would be awesome.”

There may be many more victories in Champ’s future but there likely will never be an inspiring story to go along with it. Said Champ: “Whether I win one more event or 10 or whatever, this will go down as the greatest moment in my career.”

That’s because he did it for Pops.

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