156 players found a path to the U.S. Open. His was the least likely

Willie Mack III at the U.S. Open.

Willie Mack III at the U.S. Open.

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PINEHURST, N.C. — Where do you start with this Willie Mack III, who (you could say) has more style and charisma than the top-10 FedEx Cup point leaders on the PGA Tour combined? Let’s start with his golf bag. It’s stamped Wilson, in that familiar, frozen-in-time, cursive-meets-script font. Who plays Wilson anymore? Padraig Harrington does, globetrotting touring pro. Arnold Palmer did, when he started his career as a touring pro in 1955. And so does Willie Mack III, a touring pro at large himself.

I asked Mack after his first-round 71 how he found his way to his Wilson clubs. “They looked nice,” he said. Now is that a great answer or what? You gotta like the way your clubs look.


There are 156 players in this tournament and 156 pathways here. Willie Mack’s has to be the most unlikely. My colleague Nick Piastowksi, in a story the other day, detailed how Willie 3, early in his pro career, lived in a Ford Mustang with tinted windows on the nights he couldn’t afford a hotel room at this tournament site or that one. This was in 2011, 2012, 2013. Excuse the imprecision. Details start to blend together, when you’ve spent a bunch of years trying to make it. This is the 124th U.S. Open, and Willie Mack’s first. Not for lack of trying.

You like an origin story? Try on this one. Willie Mack grew up in Flint, Mich. Flint produced Mateen Cleaves, Glen Rice and various other basketball legends but nobody ever confused the junior golf scene in Flint with the junior golf scene in Orlando or Scottsdale or the North Shore of Chicago. Mack played college golf at Bethune-Cookman, an HBCU school in Daytona Beach. The school’s emblem is under his name on his golf bag.

He’s won scores and scores of tournaments on the APGA Tour and on mini-tours in South Florida and across the South and the Midwest and, yes, there have been some years where he’s made more money than he has spent. He localed and sectionaled his way into this Open. He’s 35. He stays at it because golf is what he does. He’s the only player in the field here with fake diamond studs, about the size of a small ballmarker, in each earlobe.

There are two Black golfers in the field here, Mack and Tiger Woods. In 1896, as the second U.S. Open, held at Shinnecock Hills, there was one Black golfer in the field, John Shippen. In a week or so, Mack is scheduled to play in a tournament named for John Shippen, at the tony Detroit Golf Club, 60 miles from the Kearsley Lake Muni in Flint, where Mack won city amateur titles. Sixty miles or a million, depending on which map app you’re using.

His brother, Urindi Knox, who goes by Alex, is caddying for him. Alex is a financial advisor in Orlando. He can shoot in the low 80s and they have logged hundreds of rounds together, as playing partners or as a caddie-player team.

“Who is the brains of this operation?” the older brother, the touring pro, was asked. Caddie-player brothers.

Seve Ballesteros of Spain did it with different brothers. Carlos Franco of Paraguay, the same. Davis Love of Sea Island, Ga., won the ’97 PGA Championship with his brother, Mark, on his bag. And now we have Willie and Alex from Flint.

“He would say he is but it’s probably me,” Mack said.

Mack is ranked 1,330 in the world, but a good weekend here could change that in a hurry. He’s built like a college slot receiver. He wears clothes – a Rhoback shirt, with the pooch emblem on its chest; tapered pants; red, white and blue FootJoys shoes, a gold braided necklace — like a model. All this guy needs is a Tour card. Last year, he played the Korn Ferry tour but could not keep his card.

Mack started on the back nine on Thursday and for a long while he was 2 under par. He bogeyed his final hole, the par-3 ninth, when his tee shot finished over the green and down a hill. The worst place to miss, with the pin back. “Everything happens for a reason,” he said minutes later.

He wasn’t talking about that shot. He was talking about the whole long journey, which includes that shot and a million others. Hard to imagine he’ll ever hit a tee shot over the ninth green again.

He once saved his clubs from a burning car. He’s hired and fired and rehired Alex, likely more times than either of them knows. He signed his card in a scoring tent off the 10th fairway, got in the passenger seat of a chilly Lexus SUV shuttle for the winding dirt-path trip back to the clubhouse and driving range. His brother was in a back seat. His Wilson clubs were in the back. It was midafternoon. He was pleased with his play with every club in the bag but one. His plan was to go to the range.

“I gotta figure out this driver,” he said. He didn’t sound overmatched or nervous or anything. He sounded calm and cool without even needing the SUV’s AC. He sounded like he belonged. Willie Mack III has it all, pretty much, including, like Arnold and Padraig before him, a natural likability. A good second-round score would be a good step for him. Just a step. As Tiger used to say, you take baby steps in this game. The ball doesn’t know how old you are, or how many nights you spent sleeping in your car.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com

Michael Bamberger

Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety of books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.

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