The Masters is in the books and the season’s next major isn’t until June, but the casual golf fan -- even the guy who hates the game -- may have a story to follow throughout the season in the out-of-nowhere tale that’s being written by 39-year old PGA Tour journeyman Will MacKenzie.
Why would even a golf hater love MacKenzie? Because the man who answers to “Willy Mac” has perhaps the strangest back story in PGA Tour history. Before turning pro in 2000, MacKenzie had lived the life of an action and adventure sports vagabond. Think Radical and Awesome, not Royal and Ancient.
From the age of 19-24, MacKenzie lived mostly out of a van, moving from snowboard destinations to whitewater kayaking and rock-climbing outposts, to serious surf breaks.
“A pretty soulful experience,” says MacKenzie. “I have no regrets whatsoever.”
A highly-ranked junior golfer, MacKenzie practically gave up the sport at the age of 14 when he missed a couple of short putts that cost him tournaments. He was a member of his high school team at Rose High in Greenville, N.C., but says he never practiced and played in tennis shoes. Athletically, he was more serious about being a striker on the soccer team and a field goal kicker on the football team, and by the time he (barely) graduated high school, he was much more focused on surfing and skateboarding than on any organized team sports.
After a very short spell at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C., where he learned to snowboard, Willy Mac took off on his long, grand adventure. He says he never had a full-time job, never had health insurance, and basically lived without a plan. He tried heli-skiing. He lived in a snow cave in Alaska for 30 days without showering.
“Total dirtbag lifestyle,” MacKenzie says. “Never more than a couple hundred in my pocket.”
MacKenzie pushed his body to the limit. So much so that in 1999, he came home to Greenville to convalesce. A surfing trip to Costa Rica was next on his agenda, but when he watched his boyhood golf idol Payne Stewart win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, MacKenzie was moved to go hit a bucket of balls. It felt so good that he told his dad, “I want to play again.” At first his father thought Will meant he wanted to join his regular game at the club, until Will explained that he wanted to really get back into the sport, to see if he could play competitively.
“It came back to me pretty quickly,” says MacKenzie, who worked his way through the mini-tours and onto the PGA Tour in six years. “But man, the guys on the Tour are good.”
While he picked up PGA Tour victories at Reno-Tahoe in 2006 and the Viking Classic in 2008, MacKenzie was unable to hold on to his PGA Tour card after the 2010 season. Meanwhile, the guy who lived like a pauper for so long had gone to the opposite extreme.
“Bought the $2-million house on the lake with the epic view,” MacKenzie says. “Living totally above my means in every way. Eventually, I was broke as a joke. The money I earned in 2012 ($49,760) wasn’t even enough to cover the expenses of playing on the Web.com Tour.”
In 2013, MacKenzie started to get his life back together, on and off the course. He and his wife, a former FHM model named Alli Spencer, began divorce proceedings. He moved into a small townhouse in Jupiter, Fla., where he gets full custody of his sons Maverick and Nash when he’s not traveling. He started working with coach Jeff Leishman and played his way back on to the PGA Tour by advancing through the Web.com Tour playoffs last year.
“I’m trying to stay structured and disciplined,” MacKenzie says with a laugh. “I know, for me that isn’t normal. But after living on the extreme ends of the spectrum in terms of my lifestyle, I’m trying to live in the middle. So far, it seems to be working. I hope I can keep it up.”
With five top 10 finishes already in 2014, MacKenzie has already earned $1.72 million, which is about $600,000 more than his previous best season. He’s 14th in the FedEx Cup standings and the 84th ranked golfer in the world. His scoring average so far this season is 69.646, which puts him behind only Sergio Garcia, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy.
When asked if anyone outside the ropes on the Tour knows his story, MacKenzie says, “Not very many. I guess it’s up to me to keep writing it so more people get to know it.”