Why this pro’s first PGA Tour start has been bittersweet

Willie Mack III is making his first PGA Tour start at Torrey Pines this week.

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For professional golfers hoping to make it to the PGA Tour, the chance to compete in an event on a sponsor’s exemption should be the opportunity of a lifetime. But for Willie Mack III, his first PGA Tour start at this week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines this week is tinged with a bit of sadness.

Why? Mack, who shot a first-round 74 on the South Course Thursday, punched his Farmers ticket only because the original recipient of the tournament’s sponsor’s exemption, Kamiau Johnson, had to withdraw after testing positive for Covid-19.

“I’m friends with Kamaiu, so I talk to him all the time, and I know he was so excited to play this week and I was cheering him on,” Mack said on Wednesday. “I’m just going to go out there this week and not only play for me, but also play for him.”

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Both Johnson and Mack won the hearts of golf fans this week when details of their back-stories surfaced. Johnson, according to Golf Digest, was an eighth-grade dropout who had a difficult upbringing in Tallahassee, Fla. A local GM saw Johnson swinging a stick, saw potential and invited him to practice at the course. The rest is history.

Both Johnson and Mack endured stints of homelessness, with Mack living in his car for over a year. But now, both Mack and Johnson are sponsored by Farmers Insurance, and Mack already has another sponsor’s exemption lined up at the upcoming Genesis Invitational.

Given the unfortunate circumstances that prevented Johnson from teeing it up at Torrey Pines this week, fans hoped another tournament would step in to make up for his absence this week — and tournament directors delivered. On Friday morning, Johnson announced that he had received not one but two invitations thus far, to the Honda Classic and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

Johnson called the development “mind-blowing,” writing, “I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”

As for Mack, he has some work to do to make the cut at Torrey. But regardless of what happens on Friday, one thing’s for sure: The golf world hasn’t seen the last of these two inspiring players.

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