Will MacKenzie still talks like he just got off a gnarly run on the halfpipe. A former snowboarder who once entertained ideas of turning pro, he is “stoked” to be playing well again at 39, stoked to be in the field at this week’s Northern Trust Open at Riviera, and stoked as he anticipates playing the upcoming Honda Classic in his own backyard. He is stoked to be so capably representing the 25 graduates of last year’s inaugural Web.com Tour Finals -- only Ryo Ishikawa (19) is ahead of MacKenzie (24) in FedEx Cup points -- and is on a trajectory that would get him into the Players in May.
With a T13 finish at the AT&T, a T7 at the Farmers at Torrey Pines (where he had missed his last four cuts) and a T13 at the Humana Challenge, MacKenzie doesn’t just sound like the guy who won the 2008 Viking Classic and 2006 Reno-Tahoe Open. He’s playing like his old self, too -- so much so that you’d never know how much has happened since then.
He is still technically married to the former FHM model Alli Spencer, with whom he has two boys, but they are in the midst of getting a divorce.
“It’s kind of freed me up a little bit,” MacKenzie said in an interview with golf.com earlier this week. “It’s got me focused on golf. I was focused on other things, like trying to keep a marriage going that was not working. We’re still buds. We’re working it out for the kids where I’ll have them when I’m home [in Jupiter, Fla.] I’m still good friends with Alli’s parents.”
Another change: MacKenzie’s concession to age. Instead of ducking into the Tour’s physio trailer for the occasional rubdown, he now employs what he calls, “One of those physio guys that the big-time guys use. It’s out of my price range, but all that soft tissue work and stretching is helping me.”
Always a late bloomer -- he dropped tournament golf between the ages of 15-25, returned to play the minitours, and didn’t reach the PGA Tour until he was 30 -- MacKenzie shrugged off the aches and pains from his days as a daredevil boarder. Eventually, though, those aches and pains (mostly tightness around his neck and shoulders) along with the usual complications of maturity (marriage, fatherhood) began to take a toll on his game.
And there were other problems. MacKenzie would stand on the range and marvel at more successful players like Vijay Singh and Kenny Perry, and even if their games were nothing like his, MacKenzie convinced himself that he was not only athletic enough to swing like them, he might actually do better if he did swing like them. He was beginning to tire of the drive from Jupiter to Orlando to see his instructor, Kevin Smeltz, and he switched to stack-and-tilt gurus Mike Bennett and Andy Plummer -- a move MacKenzie says was “helpful” and educational. Still, he went back to his old coach.
By 2011 he was splitting his time between the PGA and the Web.com tours, and he played almost entirely on the Web.com in 2012 and 2013.
Today, the laid back “Willy Mac” works with Jupiter-based coach Jeff Leishman (no relation to PGA Tour pro Marc). Over a year ago they hatched a plan replete with specific drills and benchmarks for MacKenzie to get back to the Tour.
The plan seemed to be working until MacKenzie washed out of the first of four Web.com Tour Finals events last fall, shooting 69-73 to miss the cut at the Hotel Fitness Championship in early September. Alarmed at the prospect of returning for yet another season on the Web.com, he called his old sports psychologist Gio Valiante, who helped MacKenzie get his head so straight he nearly won the next week’s Chiquita Classic, losing in a playoff. Two T22 finishes in the next two weeks and MacKenzie had graduated from the Web.com to the PGA Tour, where he’s playing like he never left.
“It helps so much that Jeff is in Jupiter,” MacKenzie says. “He’s right in my back yard and he’s as good as anybody. Now even when I’m home with Maverick (5) and Nash (3), I’ll get a little window from nine to two where I can practice, and I can go see Jeff and get some work done. I finally came to the realization that this is what I got, and if it’s good enough, it’s good enough. Otherwise I’ll just finish, like, tied for 40th when I play good.”
With six top-15 finishes in eight starts and $760,000 in earnings so far in 2014, MacKenzie is doing a whole lot better than that.