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PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Michael Visacki teed off at the 12th hole of the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Golf Resort, not far from a banner with the image of Vijay Singh, the 2004 Valspar Championship winner, hanging from a street sign.
Seventeen years ago, Visacki’s father, Mike Sr., brought him to his first tournament and they followed Singh and Ernie Els. That day, a dream was born. “Just being a little kid thinking about one day I’ll be here,” Visacki said of his fondest memory of that day.
But there was another moment later that day away from the course that would be every bit as memorable. Before driving home, his father stopped to fill the tank at a gas station and, in a happy coincidence, Singh happened to be across the aisle pumping gas. Visacki Sr. still has the picture he snapped of his son standing beside Singh.
Before they parted ways, Singh, who came from nothing in Fiji to become a Masters champion and a World Golf Hall of Famer, offered young Mike three words of advice if he wanted to play on the PGA Tour like him someday. Visacki leaned in and listened as if Singh was about to tell him the secret to life.
“Practice, practice, practice,” Singh said.
Visacki, now 27, made his PGA Tour debut Thursday only 90 minutes north of his hometown after making a 20-foot birdie putt in a playoff of a Monday qualifier to earn a spot in the field at the Valspar Championship. In one of this week’s most heartwarming moments, “Big Mike,” as everyone calls him, broke down in tears as he phoned his father with the news.
“I don’t know who was worse – me or my wife,” Visacki Sr. said. “Happy tears. I waited for this moment all of my life.”
Video of a blubbering Visacki, his voice rising as he told his dad, “I made it,” went viral on social media and was replayed on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” NBC’s “The Today Show” and even Fox Business News.
Visacki is more than just the hometown kid making good. His story resonated because he never quit on his dream. He has been plying his trade in the obscurity of golf’s bush leagues, notching 37 wins on the West Florida Pro Tour while piling on more than 170,000 miles on his Honda Accord and living at home with his parents. Daniel Robinson, a fellow mini-tour player said, “We all think of him as No. 1 in the world without a world ranking.”
Mike Visacki, father of PGA golfer Mike Visacki, watches as his son plays his first round of the Valspar Championship golf tournament. Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
On Thursday, his fellow mini-tour competitors such as Dominic Formato were part of a boisterous crew that witnessed Visacki stripe his opening drive down the middle at the first hole and nearly hole a bunker shot for eagle at the par 5. He tapped in for a birdie at his first hole on the PGA Tour and his pals roared with approval.
“He makes us all believe in our own dreams a little more,” Formato said, “and just reminds you that sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is closer than it seems.”
Visacki couldn’t maintain his fairytale start, bogeying the next three holes in a row en route to shooting 3-over 74, leaving him 10 strokes behind leader Keegan Bradley and with work to do to make the 36-hole cut.
But nothing could spoil Visacki’s day. He waved his hat in appreciation as he received an ovation at the 12th green from fans at the Hooters Owl’s Nest, and as one volunteer pointed out, Visacki had the largest gallery outside of Phil Mickelson.
“It is sweet whether he makes the cut or not,” Visacki’s father said. “He made his place in the world. I knew he could do it. It was just a matter of time.”
Kaylor Steger, caddie for Mike Visacki, wears the name Big Mike on the back of his bib during the first round of the Valspar Championship golf tournament. Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports