For Willie Mack III to be seen, his story needs to be heard

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Ryan Lavner
·19 min read
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Last December, Ken Bentley sat down to fill out an application for the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption. It’s become something of an annual tradition: As the CEO of the Advocates Pro Golf Association (APGA), Bentley has endeavored to get his minority tour players a spot start at the Genesis Invitational, finding past success with his letters detailing the inspiring journeys of Kevin Hall, who has been deaf since age 2, and Tim O’Neal, a mini-tour lifer who hoped for another shot at 46. But in 2020, Bentley pitched the tour’s reigning player of the year, Willie Mack III – and the nomination letter went unanswered.

“Willie,” Bentley said, “you’ve got to tell your story.”

Having long suffered from pro golf’s version of PTSD, Mack, 32, had been grinding alone for so long that he forgot how to ask for help. If he’d needed something – money, clothes, clubs, respect – he won. He was competing to live.

“That’s shaped who he is,” Bentley says, “and made him feel like it’s him against the world.”

Implored to go deeper this year, Mack finally opened up about his turbulent decade.

How he won prolifically at a historically Black college and on the mini-tours but still was largely ignored by corporate America.

How he was homeless for almost two years but never quit.

How he nearly died when his car exploded in 2018, just as his career was on the upswing.

“I’ve known Willie for seven or eight years, and I had no idea,” Bentley says. “It took me by complete surprise. I was heartbroken.”

And so this time, Bentley detailed not just Mack’s considerable success but also his travails, comparing him to a young Sifford – a talented player who overcame tremendous obstacles in pursuit of his goals. It was such a compelling narrative that it drew an enthusiastic response from Genesis tournament director Mike Antolini, who then met with the other decision-makers at the Tiger Woods Foundation. In announcing that Mack was this year’s recipient, Woods himself was moved enough to stray from the boilerplate press release, praising Mack for enduring “through difficult times off the course” and adding that Sifford, who broke golf’s color barrier, would be proud.

Woods, of course, couldn’t have possibly known how trying the past few years have been. Because these weren’t just lines on Mack’s résumé, bullet points that made him a worthy candidate. They were real-life experiences born out of sacrifice and a struggle for opportunity, a journey that began the moment he started as a youngster with limited resources in Flint, Michigan, and continue now that he’s a hardened mini-tour legend still trying to make the leap.

One week in Hollywood doesn’t change that reality.

“With diverse people, you get the understanding that they think that they’re just going to let their play do the talking and that’s their ticket to success, but that’s not the real world,” Bentley says. “You’ve got to speak up and let people know your story. And Willie, unfortunately, has flown under the radar because he hasn’t shared his.”

* * *

WHEN MACK PHONED HOME about the Sifford exemption, his father cried. How surreal: After all these years, his son’s first start was coming at one of the PGA Tour’s premier venues, at the star-studded event hosted by his boyhood idol.

After all, it was in the late 1990s when his father, also named Willie, saw a young Tiger taking the Tour by storm and wondered if his only child could someday do the same. For years they attended the Buick Open at nearby Warwick Hills, experiencing the phenomenon up-close; young Willie even secured Tiger’s autograph on a tournament brochure. By 12, Willie was hooked, and he ditched baseball and basketball once his father told him he needed to focus on only one sport, to increase his odds of earning a college scholarship.

By then, money was already tight. Willie Mack II was a single parent, trying to do his best on a social worker’s salary. Help arrived in various forms. Willie hung around so often at the Swartz Creek muni they let him play for a few bucks. During the brutal winters he hit free range balls at an indoor dome. His swing coach, Bill Baldwin, used to be a Nike staffer, so he passed down spare clubs and golf spikes.

Even without access to quality courses and while using hand-me-down equipment, Willie still blossomed into one of the state’s top juniors and a winner on the national AJGA circuit. Baldwin nicknamed him “Lambo,” short for Lamborghini, because Mack had an extra gear that others lacked. “It was almost too easy for him,” Baldwin recalls. “I was amazed at how low he could go, and he didn’t even really know what he was doing.”

But to travel and stay competitively relevant required money. Trying to better his son’s future, Mack’s father got in so deep that his house went into foreclosure. “Every check I’d get, I’d be saying, This is good. This is for his future. This has to be done,” he says. “But that didn’t make it any easier.” (Mack II’s parents pitched in and kept them from losing their home.) During Willie’s sophomore year at Flint Central, the school announced it was discontinuing the golf team. Needing to move into a new district to stay involved, Mack rented another home in the area, getting a sweetheart deal that cost only a few hundred more a month but further strained his finances.

“There’s been times where I had to bite the bullet, and I’ve been in some tough situations,” the elder Mack says, “but I had to do it for Willie.”

Despite his family’s budgetary restrictions, Willie was talented enough to draw interest from college programs like Michigan, Indiana and Memphis, but his grades were average and none of the other Division I schools offered what he really needed – a full ride. One that did was Bethune-Cookman, a historically Black college in Daytona Beach, Florida, that promised a fresh start and year-round golf weather.

Mack won 11 times as an individual and was a key contributor to the school’s NCAA Minority Championship team in 2008. Hardly anyone noticed. Playing against weaker competition, Mack never finished a season ranked higher than 388th. At the time, there was no PGA Tour University program that offered a direct pathway to the big leagues. They didn’t have the APGA Collegiate Ranking for players from HBCUs. The painful truth was that had Mack compiled that résumé at Arizona State or Oklahoma or Florida, he’d be inundated with agents and clothing sponsors and equipment reps. “But when you leave Bethune-Cookman,” says Doug Smith, one of Mack’s closest friends, “you get a pat on the back.”

And so even after a decorated college career, even after he became the first African-American to win the Michigan Amateur in 2011, Mack received scant interest from local and national sponsors. No tournament directors offered him exemptions. His coach pushed him to try the overseas route, but without the proper funding, it was a non-starter. Mack quietly turned pro and drove back to Florida, his car packed with all of his possessions.

“Willie’s story is: What are you willing to do to be who you want to be when you grow up?” Smith says. “And he’s willing to do anything.”

* * *

AT THE BEGINNING, MACK’S pro career seemed easy. Crashing at a friend’s house, pushing his grandfather’s car over 200,000 miles, he mopped up on the Florida Pro Golf Tour. He claimed the circuit’s Player of the Year award and earned enough money to make a run at PGA Tour Q-School. The 2012 edition was the final opportunity for players to go directly to the big Tour, and Mack, after an opening 75 in second stage, fell a few shots short of earning conditional status, leaving him in no-man’s land. “Who knows what would have happened if I’d had a better first day,” he says ruefully.

The next few years were an almighty struggle. Without a sponsor to finance his pursuit, he bounced around the state, playing one- and two-day events and hoping to go on a heater. Pinched for cash and with nowhere to stay long term, Mack eliminated a hotel expense by squeezing into the backseat of his 2013 Ford Mustang, an uncomfortable arrangement that lasted almost two years. Tinted windows offered him some protection from nosy hotel employees, but a few times he was forced to flee the parking lot in the middle of the night. His dad called early every morning before work, mostly to make sure he was still alive.

Meanwhile, Mack’s opponents had no idea their main threat was using borrowed clubs and taking showers in the public bathroom at Orange County National.

“Sometimes you’ve got to do stuff you don’t want to do to get to the places you want to go,” Mack says. “I never want to go back to the car.”

Willie Mack III
Willie Mack III

The stressful conditions weren’t conducive to freewheeling golf. One time, he paid a $100 entry fee on the Moonlight Tour knowing he had only $110 in his account. Had he played poorly, he couldn’t have paid for gas or food. Little wonder he memorized the McDonald’s Dollar Menu.

Mack’s father tried to help, but how much could he do? He transferred Willie every leftover dollar from his paycheck. He ordered items online from Walmart and had them shipped to his local store. He used Approved Cash so Willie could tee it up in bigger events; one year, he took out a personal loan to pay for $6,000 Q-School.

“My dad doing that for me, it weighed on me,” he says. “It’s probably one of the reasons I never quit.”

Each time, Mack dug his way out of the financial hole, flipping a $100 entry fee into $500, then those earnings into a grand. And so on. “It made him focus on winning, and that’s probably why he’s won so much,” Bentley says. “He’s had to win to survive.” That self-reliance continued for years, even as he upgraded from the backseat of his car to a friend’s spare bedroom to his own apartment in Orlando’s tourist district.

“I think that’s why he was a recluse initially,” Bentley says. “He felt like he was dealt a bad hand because he didn’t have any support.”

Never was that underscored more than in 2018, when Mack traveled to Colombia and earned full status for the first half of the PGA Tour Latinoamerica season. At last, he had a clear path to the next level – but he never played a single event on the developmental circuit. He’d crunched the numbers, and traveling to Guatemala and Argentina and Costa Rica, all for a winner’s check of $15,000, wasn’t a feasible option.

That summer, Mack fired a 60 to play his way into a Korn Ferry Tour event, the lowest qualifying score ever recorded on that circuit. But they hand out checks for the lowest scores on Sundays, not Mondays, and when factoring in costs for travel, accommodations and food, his one and only start on the Korn Ferry Tour resulted in a missed cut and a net loss.

“You can have all the talent in the world,” he says, “but if you don’t have the money to get into a tournament, or to get into a groove, then it’s almost kind of wasteful, to be honest.”

Later that year, Mack finally garnered nationwide attention, but not for any of his on-course exploits. While driving back from a tournament on Interstate 95, the engine of his 2012 Kia Optima shut off unexpectedly, just days after it was replaced in a company recall. After Mack pulled over, two people began shouting at him to get out of the car. Mack thought he was being robbed.

“Your car is on fire!” they screamed.

Mack jumped out and saw the smoke billowing. Instinctively, he grabbed his clubs out of the trunk and threw them to the side of the road – believing, he said, “if I have my clubs, then I can make some money somehow.” He tried to get back inside through the driver’s side door, but it wouldn’t budge.

A few seconds later, his car exploded.

All of his possessions – his clothes, his wallet, his national championship ring, everything but his clubs – were engulfed in flames.

The dramatic video surfaced on social media. Smith started a GoFundMe page, bringing in more than $6,500 of donations. Titleist pitched in. Peter Millar, too. It was an eye-opening experience for Mack. See, others were willing to help. All it took was for him to nearly die.

* * *

ONE OF THE FIRST times Bentley watched Mack play was at an APGA event in 2015. Locked in a playoff, Mack attacked the par-5 finishing hole, sending his shot over trees and water to 20 feet, the gutsy shot leading to a title-clinching eagle.

“If I had a guy on our tour that I needed to play one round to save my life,” Bentley says, “I’d pick Willie. He’d fight all the way to the end.”

Mack’s improvement as a player has paralleled the rise of the APGA, which started in 2010 as a non-profit dedicated to adding diversity to the game. Unlike myriad circuits around the country trying to make a quick buck, the APGA subsidizes the entry fees, charging just $400 for a membership and each tournament start. In 2010, the circuit offered three tournaments on inner-city courses, with a paltry $40,000 in total prize money. This year, in the midst of a global pandemic, it is hosting 13 events on championship-caliber courses with an overall prize fund of $350,000.

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The APGA offers a lifeline for many who would have otherwise been pushed out of the game, but at its core the tour is still full of penny-pinchers: crashing on couches, sharing rental cars and splitting discounted Marriott rooms three ways, with the low scorer getting the cot for the night.

“The tour is designed to promote diversity in the game,” Smith says. “That’s not just Black and brown folks. Diversity is the have-nots.”

Through a recent partnership with the PGA Tour, the APGA now offers tour membership to the top five college seniors from HBCUs. Left unsaid is how that opportunity could have altered Mack’s career trajectory a decade ago. “Willie shouldn’t have had to struggle all this time,” Bentley laments. The APGA also struck a deal that allows members access to TPC properties, giving them the ability to train, test equipment and retool their games with swing coach Todd Anderson. During their first session together, at TPC Sawgrass’ Dye’s Valley course, Mack shot one of the easiest 31s Anderson had ever seen.

“How are you not on Tour yet?” Anderson asked.

Mack could only shrug: “Man, I don’t know what’s holding me back.”

“Given the right opportunities, he’s got a really good chance of getting out there,” Anderson says. “His talent, his work ethic – he’s got all the things you need. But obviously, there’s more to it than that.”

Indeed, Mack was the tour’s Player of the Year in 2019, ranks as the circuit’s all-time wins leader and has racked up a whopping 65 career mini-tour titles – 65! – but trophies alone are not what motivate tournament directors to act. It’s the personal stories, stories of dedication and sacrifice, of tragedy and perseverance, that compel them to reach out – and Mack hadn’t revealed his harrowing journey.

Why not?

Baldwin, his old coach, believes Mack might harbor some “self-guilt” that he hasn’t yet fulfilled his dream. Smith, his longtime friend, thinks Mack’s attitude is “I’ll just win,” and that’ll solve all of his problems. Mack himself doesn’t know – just that he’s “not real open.”

“Willie is from the old-school mentality where you believe your clubs should do the talking for you,” Bentley says. “In a perfect world, it should. But we don’t live in a perfect world.”

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THE ONLY COMPANY TO recognize Mack’s need, so far, has been Farmers. The insurance company already provided funding for APGA events, but last summer, with the country in the midst of an awakening following the death of George Floyd, it announced a multiyear sponsorship deal with Mack and fellow APGA member Kamaiu Johnson, hoping to ease their financial burdens.

Even though Johnson lacked Mack’s playing credentials, he’s a gregarious personality who hadn’t been shy about sharing his backstory as an eighth-grade dropout who became homeless but never stopped pursuing his dream of a Tour card. That story resonated deeply, appearing first on this website and then spreading as far as CNN and “People.” When Johnson won the APGA Tour Championship last fall, Farmers seized the opportunity, extending him an invitation into the following year’s PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines. The contrast was stark: While Johnson was set to take on the world’s best on Torrey’s South Course with $7.5 million at stake, Mack would be a few hundred yards away, on the North, in a 15-man, 27-hole APGA event offering a $55,000 purse.

As it turned out, Johnson never made it to the first tee. On Tuesday of tournament week, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to withdraw from the event. Still, two tournament directors were so inspired – and heartbroken by his latest misfortune – that they offered him spots in their upcoming Tour events, as well as a Korn Ferry Tour stop. Two more sponsors signed him, too.

Naturally, Johnson’s Farmers invite went to the company’s other brand ambassador: Mack.

On Tuesday night, Smith began prepping Mack for the questions he’d face the next day in a virtual news conference. “He’s not the most extraverted guy,” Smith says, “but I told him: ‘This is your chance now. We’ve got to do this.’ So he rehearsed.” Dressed in Puma gear and sporting two Farmers logos, Mack talked to reporters about the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Johnson’s WD. About what life is like for an APGA player. About how he endured through the tough times, including sleeping in his car. About how his father cried when he told him about the upcoming invite to the Genesis.

But media obligations are only a small portion of a Tour player’s responsibilities. With the late call-up, Mack had the unenviable task of trying to learn two courses in about 36 hours, with a caddie he’d just met in the parking lot. Because of a sponsor event with Rickie Fowler, Mack saw only 13 holes on the North Course – meaning he was playing arguably the toughest non-major venue of the season partially blind.

There was little time to sort out his equipment, either. A few days earlier, he grabbed a new lob wedge off the rack at PGA Tour Superstore so he’d have sharper grooves. He popped into an equipment truck and had a last-minute backup driver made, but he opted not to put it in play without any practice time. Too bad. He found only five of 28 fairways while using what was later discovered as a cracked gamer.

But the nerves of making his long-awaited Tour debut? Those never came. Afterward, he told Smith he was surprised how similar a fan-less Tour stop felt to a mini-tour event. “The only difference was you can get whatever you want,” he said, “and there’s grass everywhere.” Though others congratulated him on an admirable showing with limited prep and faulty equipment, Mack was annoyed.

“I’m tired of people saying I played decent,” he said. “I’m here to win.”

Willie Mack III
Willie Mack III

AT LEAST ANOTHER CHANCE was just weeks away. Mack had quietly been preparing for Riviera, not Torrey Pines, but a player desperate for upward mobility can’t turn down a Tour start, no matter how unfair the circumstances.

“That was Kamaiu’s week – he was playing for him,” Smith says. “At Riviera, he ain’t playing for nobody else. He’s playing for his g**damn self.”

This week in L.A., Mack will sit for another news conference, another chance to broadcast the personal story he’s resisted for so long. He’ll feature in early-round TV coverage. He’ll hear the usual platitudes about diversity and inclusion and growing the game.

And no doubt, these exemptions are precious and much-needed opportunities, but they can’t just be token gestures either. They can’t just be one-week subplots. Mack doesn’t need a taste of the Tour to whet his appetite. He’s hungry already. Starving, really.

Because if they’re serious about making a long-lasting impact and not just a PR splash, a pair of tee times is only a start.

How about multiple exemptions to let him get comfortable?

What about a five-figure check to help fund his dream all year long?

Why not direct access from his tour to something bigger, something better, something he’d earned on his own?

That’s how the cycle is broken.

“His story won’t be told until this time next year: Will he get more starts, or will people forget who he was, the guy who did that thing that one time?” Smith says. “Because what happens if Willie can consistently play, when he can check in every week with a player badge? What happens when he gets used to it? It’s going to be super special. He’s Apple stock in the ’80s, man. Get in now.”

Until then, Mack will keep winning, keep getting by uncomfortably – and keep hoping someone else notices.