He lived in a Ford. Not even his mom knew. Thursday, he plays the U.S. Open

Willie Mack III

Willie Mack III on Monday at Pinehurst during his U.S. Open practice round.

Getty Images

PINEHURST, N.C. — Tiger Woods saunters past him. He watched him on TV. Still does. Dad bought tickets to see him at the old Buick tournament. Tiger freaking Woods! Be cool. Putt well. Don’t ship this ball on the Pinehurst practice green to Charlotte. 

Willie Mack III drains it. Not even a flinch. He drags over another ball. Woods is gone. 

A few minutes later, as Mack is waiting for his U.S. Open practice-round tee time, Mike Tirico tells him he knows his story. He says he’s hoping for the best for him. A small crowd also builds. The U.S. Open! Mike Tirico? He’s on TV! A crowd? Really? 

Mack stings an iron down the fairway.

He’s ready. And he’s been ready. You tend to think about how such things would go when you’re playing — and winning — on every mini tour there is. Florida Pro Tour. Moonlight Tour. On and on. Wherever you can snag a spot. Wherever they pay. You also tend to think about how such things would go when you’re trying to fall asleep in your black Ford Mustang, somewhere in who-knows-where Florida, hoping the late-night hotel worker doesn’t shout at you to move your two-door, four-wheel home

You’ve pictured Pinehursts and U.S. Opens, even though there haven’t been many other Black golfers make it, because you believe. You think you can inspire. You want to. 

This week, as they play the year’s third major, no one among the field of 156 has linearly arrived to this point, though Mack’s path has had more bumps than the greens here. Born in Flint, Mich., he and his dad, Willie Jr., learned the game together, though he says only one of their courses remains. The 35-year-old’s been a pro since graduating from Bethune-Cookman in 2011. He’s managed seven PGA Tour starts. Last year, he had full status on the Korn Ferry Tour. But he’s played mostly lower-rung events, though he won a playoff in an Open qualifier to get here, and who knows what could happen should he make it to late Sunday afternoon, in his first major-championship start. 

A conversation starts there, from the far right corner of Pinehurst’s U.S. Open driving range.

When you won the playoff to get here, the three-for-one playoff in Florida, what was the first reaction you had, first thought you had, when it was, I’m in?

“Shocked, for sure,” Mack said. “But just in my head, I’m in the U.S. Open. It’s not like a dream anymore to try to play in the U.S. Open or a major. Just being able to book my ticket and get here and do all the travel at the last minute is kind of surreal, but like I said, it’s my job so hopefully I can come here and play good.” 

Can you walk me through who you called first, how did you celebrate, all the good stuff?

“I think I called my girlfriend [Jenny-Lyn David] and then I called my dad right after.” 

What did you tell them?

“They already knew I was in. They were watching it on TV.” 

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Do you know their reaction? Did they tell you?

“My dad said he was yelling. And my girlfriend said she was yelling. We live in an apartment, so she said people above us and below us probably thought something was going on. But yeah, they both were excited. I called my mom [Michelle Knox], too, after that and everybody was just so excited that I got it done and, yeah, we’re here.” 

With your journey, and we’ll get to that in a second, are you a believer in things happening for a reason?

“Yeah, me and my dad were actually talking about that the other day. I mean, I’ve been close — I’ve lost in a playoff before. But I think just being able to get out there on the Korn Ferry last year for a full season, I learned a lot more than I probably would have if I made it a while ago. Just being more confident and knowing how things work. When you first get here, if you don’t know anybody or haven’t played in any of these, it’s kind of overwhelming. You don’t know where to go. Just going through it, I think, those times I did play on the PGA Tour, the Korn Ferry, just gave me a little bit more confidence to walk around, a little pep in my step.”

Willie Mack III
Willie Mack III makes his U.S. Open debut this week. Getty Images

The conversation turned to his other tours. There are a few. 

Where have you all played? What tours have you played on?

“Florida Pro Tour. Moonlight Tour. It’s a million,” Mack said. “There are a lot of tours that have come and gone. West Florida Tour. Minor league tours. There’s probably at least 30 different tours over the last 10 years. There’s a lot of them.” 

Is there a tournament or a city where you went, what am I doing here? Or something strange happened?    

“Probably in the Midwest, farther up into Iowa and stuff, just not a lot of stuff to do. I live in Orlando, so you can find something to do any time of the day. Going to places like that is probably kind of more … boring.”

I’m from Milwaukee, I lived in Omaha. I won’t be offended. 

“Restaurant, hotel, course — that’s pretty much all you got.” 

“When did you start playing?” 

“When I was about 6, me and my dad kind of started at the same time. He never played golf before. Just watching Tiger Woods on TV and just going out there and trying. I played other sports, but I’m not that tall, so playing football and basketball was not an option.” 

And you’re from Flint, Mich. Is there a lot of golf in Flint? I’m familiar with basketball, obviously Michigan State and the ‘Flintstones,’ but is golf big there?

“Back then, no. Every course I used to play at back in the day is completely gone. I think there’s just one public course that’s opened. Since I’ve gone to college, all those courses have closed down. Hopefully one day they can come back and kind of get it going again.” 

Did you ever think about the odds of that, from the courses that you played aren’t there, to where you’re here?

“Yeah, I know, it’s crazy. Crazy ride over the past 11, 12 years. Being able to show people that I can play and be at this level, it gives myself the confidence that I can do it.” 

Was there ever a point on the mini tours and going through it that you thought, why should I keep doing it? 

“I kind of just stuck with it, but some of those nights sleeping in the car in Florida, it’s kind of rough. You can’t really turn on the air, have the car running the whole night. I think those times just made me stronger as a person and helped me in my career. My dad always said, just never give up. Kind of that’s what I go off of.” 

Willie Mack III
Willie Mack III on Tuesday at Pinehurst during his U.S. Open practice round. Nick PIastowski

About that car … 

He lived in it for a year and a half. 

When was that?

“So when I first turned pro, the first year, I won the money list on the Florida Pro Tour. I was playing good,” Mack said. “It was the last year you could go right to the PGA Tour through Q-School, and I missed final stage by two strokes. And then after that, I don’t know if I kind of thought it was easy because I was playing so good, but things just started going the other direction. Money was just low. At that time, I was making money to get to the other spots, but when you start playing bad on those mini tours and you don’t have any sponsors, I think that’s when things kind of get stretched and things like that.”

What was the year you decided to live in the car?

“I think it was 2012.” 

What kind of car was it? 

“It was a Mustang, a Ford Mustang. Two doors.” 

What color?

“Black. Windows were super tinted.” 

What was the decision like to live in your car?

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“I don’t even know how it started. I just know my mom didn’t really know all the details of that. My dad knew where I was every night. I think moms, they kind of worry more than dads so she probably wouldn’t have been too happy or tried to get me to come home. In the winter, you clearly can’t play golf in Michigan, so just stuck it out and I’m glad I did.” 

Take me through a day living in a car playing golf. 

“So if I had a tournament, I got to the course kind of earlier and took a shower. Nobody knew I was doing it, either. I would have some good finishes and still stay in the car. But people — at the time, I just thought it was embarrassing. But that’s all I had to try and get by. I’m sure there’s people that people don’t know what they’re going through and doing things you’d never expect. It was just I would play a tournament, go get some food — I would actually practice more because I just didn’t want to get back in the car. I would go to the mall a lot and just walk around, things to not be in the car. And then play a tournament and do it all again tomorrow.” 

How would you find a place to park? Where was the best spot?

“I would always go to hotels and park between cars that were already there. Kind of darker spots. Some hotels I got kicked out of a couple nights. Those were kind of more of the hot nights that I needed the air on. Other than that, just usually hotels.” 

Was there a low point? Like why I’m doing this?

“At this point, the older I am, I must have looooved golf — a lot — to even go through that. Probably more than I thought. Yeah, just never giving up. In those days, my mom and my dad, they sacrificed a lot for me to play in tournaments. I feel like just not giving up was the only option.”  

Willie Mack III
Willie Mack III last year during the Panama Championship. Getty Images

The conversation moved to his race. 

As one of the few Black players in the field, do you feel any pressure to play well and to potentially be a role model for other Black players?

“Not too much stress, I would say, playing,” Mack said. “I feel like I just come out here and do this every day so it’s kind of normal. But hopefully I can inspire some people to come out here and maybe pick up the game of golf. Kind of like how Tiger Woods did. If I can do that, that would be a great outcome.” 

Has anyone come up to you and said, hey, this is inspiring?

“Yeah, I got some DMs the past couple days on Instagram, and a lot of the kids here knew who I was. So just being able to inspire just kids in general, I feel like that’s what everybody needs.” 

I remember reading an interview you gave at the Rocket Mortgage and it was about the sleeve. [Mack wears a white athletic sleeve on his left arm.] Someone asked you why you were wearing it and you said that you wanted to make golf cooler. You wanted to make it look cool. Basketball players would wear something like that. Is that story right?

“Yeah, growing up, my favorite player was Allen Iverson. He was the first one to wear a sleeve. At that time, I was still playing basketball in the winters. Kind of when I started playing golf full time, I actually used to wear like an arm band and then it turned into a sleeve to kind of be cool, a little different. A lot of the guys on Korn Ferry last year, they said they could see me way on the other side of the course because I had one sleeve on. So just kind of standing out was pretty cool to me. Actually a dad and a son, they were at a Korn Ferry event, at a clinic, and after that clinic, he said he wore one sleeve to a junior tournament he won so that was pretty cool.” 

When you hear that, I mean, that has to make it worth it, right? Like this is really awesome.

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“Yeah, I’m being me and people look up to that, so that’s still kind of awkward, but it’s still pretty cool.” 

I get the sense you take the role model thing in a cool, relaxed way. Is that an accurate description?

“Yeah, because I was that kid going to the Buick Open every year, just looking at other players. It’s pretty cool to be able to do that now.” 

When you first started playing golf, did you think you would be at this spot? At Pinehurst? Playing the U.S. Open? Possibly playing a major championship?

“You always dream of playing in a major or getting into even a PGA Tour event. Yeah, I still don’t think it’s sunk in. I feel like it’s a normal tournament. Actually, I was telling my brother [Urundi Knox], who’s caddying, this is probably the most relaxed I’ve been in a tournament on the PGA Tour.” 

Why do you think that is?

“I don’t know. Maybe because the course is hard. Everybody is going to struggle at some point, if it’s chipping, putting, off the tee. You’re going to miss fairways, you’re going to miss greens. And I think just grinding it out like I have on those mini tours, it’ll help me out this week.” 

What’s the best week for you this week?

“I for sure want to come out here and win. I feel like all golfers are competitive and they want to win. But just get the right preparation and execute all my shots and whatever happens after that, happens. You can get some bad lies and bad breaks out here so stay patient and hopefully the week turns out special.” 

Do you think your story inspires?

“Yeah, hopefully it does. Just to never give up on your dreams, even if it’s not golf. Just always strive to go further with whatever you dream of.” 

After everything, from growing up in Flint, to mini tours, living in the car, to winning the playoff to come here, how would you describe golf?

[Laughs.] “It’s a roller coaster.” 

Nick Piastowski

Nick Piastowski

Golf.com Editor

Nick Piastowski is a Senior Editor at Golf.com and Golf Magazine. In his role, he is responsible for editing, writing and developing stories across the golf space. And when he’s not writing about ways to hit the golf ball farther and straighter, the Milwaukee native is probably playing the game, hitting the ball left, right and short, and drinking a cold beer to wash away his score. You can reach out to him about any of these topics — his stories, his game or his beers — at nick.piastowski@golf.com.

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