The majors soak up most of golf’s dramatic energy. Something about a Sunday at Augusta or Pebble Beach or St. Andrews adds weight to a story that doesn’t quite exist at the Anonymous Midwestern Insurance Company Classic.
But if you look around golf’s margins, you can find stories that are every bit as compelling and heartbreaking as the majors—stories like, for instance, Cameron Champ’s at the Safeway Open this past weekend. Champ won the tournament with a heavy heart, carrying the pain of knowing that he was about to lose one of the most important people in his life.
Up to this point, Champ, a 24-year-old long-ball driver out of Texas A&M, is best known to the golf world at large for having one hell of a name to live up to. (Pitcher Bob Walk and kicker Chris Blewitt must look on in envy.) He won the Sanderson Farms Championship last October, which is notable in itself; winning any tournament anywhere is a hell of an achievement. But at that time, Sanderson Farms was an alternate-event tournament—played at the same time as the WGC-HSBC Champions event in China — meaning it carried a touch less luster than a full-field, full-strength tournament.
Which brings us to the Safeway Open in Napa, California, where Champ won with a clutch 18th-hole birdie. He’d carried a three-shot lead into Sunday, but saw it evaporate as Adam Hadwin, Marc Leishman and others started dropping birdies. Still, Champ steadied himself, dropped a brilliant chip on 18 within putting distance, and then put away the tournament with one smooth stroke:
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 30, 2019
As Champ embraced his caddie, Cameron’s father Jeff walked onto the green, holding out a cell phone. On the other end: Cameron’s grandfather Mack, celebrating the victory although he’s in hospice care up the road in Sacramento, fighting stage 4 stomach cancer.
Mack Champ — Cameron calls him “PaPa,” and he inscribed that name on his cleats this weekend — was the man who taught Cameron the game, who set him on the path that brought him to the very mountaintop of his sport. Earlier this year, The Undefeated profiled Mack Champ, who’s taken pride in the fact that his grandson is able to go places that Mack, as a young African-American man, could not.
"He's someone I want to be one day, someone I strive to be," Cameron Champ said after the tournament. "He's been a huge influence. To be so loving and passionate about others than himself and loving the game of golf and then teaching his grandson, giving me the chance as a kid to love the game and to be able to be sitting here with y’all."
After the tournament, Champ told the story of how he learned the game at his grandparents’ home. "From age 2, I spent more time at Grandpa's and Grandma's house than I did my house, it felt like," he said. "I remember when I was younger, my parents worked, and Grandpa and Grandma would pick me up, I'd go hang out there all day, jack it around the backyard. We could hit it over the house and it would fall directly into the backyard, so we just hit them back and forth, Wiffle balls. I think it just started from that.”
In recent months, though, Mack’s health took a turn for the worse, and the effects reverberated through the entire family. "With everything going on with my family, with my grandpa, I wasn't even sure if I was going to play," Champ said. "It was going to be a last-minute deal. We weren't sure how we were going to hold up. He does good, enjoys the days, but sometimes he'll mention he's kind of done, he feels like he doesn't want to fight anymore.”
That’s a tough sentence for anyone caring for a loved one to hear, and Cameron’s family knew that the best thing that he could do would be to play the tournament. During the tournament, Jeff got video of his father sitting up in bed and enjoying his grandson’s run.
"I don’t know if it was meant to be, but to win here, no matter if I win one more tournament, 10 more tournaments or whatever it may be, this will be the greatest win of my golfing career, for sure.”
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