Will MacKenzie has led a life that is as refreshing as it is complicated
The modern PGA Tour, despite all that cap doffing and handshaking, is really kind of ruthless and lonely, so it was remarkable when Will MacKenzie and Tiger Woods crossed paths at Torrey Pines earlier this year and Woods said, “You have no idea how happy I am to see you here.” Willy Mac, as his name is embossed on his white Puma golf bag, has that effect on people.
The Woods-Mac bro-hug was a reunion of sorts. MacKenzie won on Tour in 2006 and ’08, subsequently lost his Tour status, then found his way back to the majors through solid work last year on the Web.com tour. His good play this season has earned him a spot in the Players Championship for only the third time in his career. And though he has made almost $1.8 million this year, he still gets nervous every time he reaches for his American Express card. Such is the up-and-down life of the professional golfer. Or Willy Mac’s, anyway.
His agent, Mac Barnhardt, calls MacKenzie “the most interesting man in golf,” and it’s easy to see why. Can you imagine another golfer with a comparable Wiki page? His refers to his stints as a snowboarder in Alaska, a rafting guide in Montana, a surfer in Costa Rica and a seller of grilled-cheese sandwiches at Grateful Dead shows. Notably absent is anything about his high school or college golf career. That’s because he had no high school or college golf career. He turned pro at 25, and he turns 40 in September. Five years ago Karen Crouse of The New York Times described MacKenzie’s life as Into the Wild meets Tin Cup. She nailed it.
MacKenzie, with his rugged and expressive face, brings to mind Sean Penn, who, it so happens, directed Into the Wild. Penn became famous playing the well-baked surfer Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and stoked, epic and bro roll easily off Willy Mac’s tongue. But the most significant thing is the wanderlust. Penn looks like he would board a plane for three weeks in Haiti on two minutes’ notice. MacKenzie wouldn’t need the second minute.
As a Tour rookie in 2005, at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, MacKenzie became smitten with a fetching TPC Southwinds cart girl named Alli Spencer. She was 21, 8-1⁄2 years younger than her pursuer, and when she told her University of Memphis girlfriends about him, they said, “A golfer?” Like, How boring can you get? And she replied, “He’s not like that.” He’s really not.
They married in 2008, have two young blond boys—Maverick and Nash—and now are in the process of divorcing. Financial woes led to other problems. But Will and Alli talk every day and get along better now than they have in several years.
I first met Will MacKenzie at the 2007 Sony Open, in Honolulu. He was remarkably open. He talked about his attention issues, his wildly active off-course life and his ability to hyperfocus while standing over a shot. Like a lot of people with ADD, he has a compulsive streak too. MacKenzie walked away from junior golf as a 14-year-old in Greenville, N.C., because it cut into his skateboarding time. Fame and fortune were never much of a motivator. Tiger must find that perplexing.
I caught up with MacKenzie again last month, at Hilton Head. At one point, in a text, I asked him if Maverick, who is pushing six, was named for the legendary big-wave surfing spot south of San Francisco. I did some name-dropping: Jeff Clark, Mark Foo and Darryl (Flea) Virostko, all Mavericks legends. MacKenzie wrote back, “Beautiful people.” Name any other golfer this side of Mac O’Grady who would string together those two words.
Turns out, the boy’s name is a nod to the big-wave graveyard, but the real naming rights belong to the Tom Cruise character in Top Gun. It makes sense, really. MacKenzie uses sir more often than dude, and speaking of Alli, he said, “I pray she finds someone.” At the end of the day, he’s pure Greenville.
Alli and Will sold their $1.6 million riverfront home in Jupiter, Fla., last year at a considerable loss, given all the money they had sunk into it. They now live a few miles apart in far more modest circumstances. Their amicable arrangement is that Alli has the boys when Mac is on Tour, and he has them when he’s home. But for Hilton Head, Mac took the boys along, splitting a jet with Camilo Villegas for the trip up. The MacKenzies stayed in a rented house on the beach with a dozen or so other relatives. Will wasn’t in the pro-am, didn’t play a practice round and battled through a cold, heavy wind on Thursday morning. Maverick witnessed a 75, matching Dad’s highest score of the year.
Afterward, outside the locker room, Will and Maverick hung out with veteran golfer Charley Hoffman. While Maverick practiced his sliding karate kick on Hoffman, Will watched with keen interest. At one point he felt compelled to offer this advice: “Don’t kick him in the thing.”
The Friday afternoon round was played through a driving rain. MacKenzie has the speed walk you associate with Indiana schoolboy point guards, and the rain was only hurrying him up. (“I do everything fast,” he says.) His swing, tended to by a Canadian teaching pro in South Florida named Jeff Leishman, looks so simple and athletic, even when it feels off to him. MacKenzie’s group got in 10 holes before the misery was halted. “My swing’s not even close right now,” he said while walking in with his caddie, Scott Marino, brother of Steve, a Tour player. It’s a level of candor that’s rare in professional golf.
MacKenzie returned on Saturday for the remaining eight holes and the closing ceremonies. That is, the cap-doffing, the handshaking, the card-signing, the postround search for an ATM. On Tour everybody else gets paid, even when the player doesn’t. Will and Maverick and Nash stayed in Hilton Head on Sunday for Easter and a kiddie egg hunt, then drove home that afternoon in a one-way $92 Avis rental. The week cost Willy Mac $8,000, but his kinfolk “brought all the food, all the beer, all the liquor. We played on the beach and danced all night. It was worth it.” Dancing figures in a lot of his stories. He has been to scores of Dead and Phish concerts. You can imagine the whole scene.
We met for breakfast on the Monday after Hilton Head at a place called Duke’s Lazy Loggerhead Cafe, on the beach in Jupiter. The first thing Will did upon arrival was run down a walkway, stand on a railing and check out the surf. In November he’s going to Nicaragua on a surfing trip, his first such journey in years. These days, his No. 1 priority, by far, is his boys. Everybody will tell you that.
In 2012, with his marriage falling apart, MacKenzie played 18 Web.com events and won $49,760, and he made another $55,000 in six PGA Tour starts. Meanwhile, the yard man, the pool man, the tax man all needed to be paid. In ’13, out of Tour options and with his back to the wall, he played 21 events on the Web.com, finished 15th on the money list and reclaimed his Tour card. “I thoroughly loved it,” he said of his full-time season in the minors. “The big Tour is sort of lone wolf. On the Web.com, I went out for dinner with my buddies all the time and told stories from my crazy life.” More than a few of them involve beer and being broke or cold or scared. They’re about surviving.
Halfway through his egg sandwich, he suddenly said, “You like my watch?”
He showed me his Rolex.
“Is it real?” I asked.
“Nah,” MacKenzie said. “I don’t even know if it’s waterproof.” Dustin Johnson gave it to him a few years ago. They used to hang out and play a lot of golf together, but now Johnson has put his Jupiter house up for sale and is planning to move to California.
I showed him my Timex Expedition.
“That’s a nice watch,” Willy Mac said. There was not even a trace of sarcasm. First and foremost, he’s an outdoorsman.
You could not imagine a less pretentious golfer. On that Monday after Hilton Head, I mentioned to MacKenzie that he was 18th on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list. This was news to him.
“Don’t you and your psychologist talk about goals, like trying to make the Ryder Cup team?” I asked. He had told me earlier that Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist, had been helpful to him.
“I don’t talk to him that much,” MacKenzie replied. “One more person to pay.”
He was in his F-150 truck, driving in Palm Beach Gardens, on his way to an Edwin Watts store, where he bought a boxed set of junior clubs for Maverick. He got on the ground to read the labels up close. He presented his AmEx at the cash register with a hint of trepidation. He was dressed for the beach, and nobody had any idea he was a Tour player. He didn’t care. This is not a man who defines himself by his career. That’s a rare enough thing, but for a Tour player? It’s almost unimaginable.
I caught up with Alli two days later, at a place in Jupiter called Cheeseburgers & More, after she had picked up the boys from their Montessori school. She was there with some friends and their kids, and she was dressed, you could say, for a beachfront yoga session where a dance party might suddenly break out. In other words, she was going to draw attention. She has a charming, youthful rapport with her boys, and she’s a hyperfluent talker. She’s had a taste of the South Florida good life—Jesper Parnevik’s yacht, Jack Nicklaus’s plane, your better Palm Beach restaurants—and she likes it. Regarding the Hilton Head week, she said amusingly and most likely accurately, “Will can’t be left in charge of that many people.” She’s smart. Regarding their fast courtship, she said, “I was young, and he was rootless.” Regarding life on Tour, she said, “The days are long, and the years go fast.” Regarding Will’s dismal season in 2012, she said, “We were kind of freaking out.” Nobody can play professional golf while freaking out.
The Friday of New Orleans, I happened to be visiting with Big Jack on another matter. MacKenzie shot 72 that day and missed his fourth cut. Nicklaus has grandchildren who go to school with Maverick and Nash. “We’re one big family down here,” Alli had told me, but that’s true only to a point. As Will says, the Tour is lone wolf. But it is small-town living, in a manner of speaking. A few miles up the road from Jack’s office is an 18-hole par-3 course called Jupiter Dunes, where Leishman is the general manager. I asked him to explain why his pupil was suddenly playing better. He gave a long, nuanced answer, including references to a snowboarding move called a frontside 360, dancing, physiotherapy, the benefits (for Willy Mac) of listening to reggae while practicing. But in the end I can summarize in two words the essence of Leishman’s message. The two came up with a plan. The first part, Leishman said, was to “eliminate distractions.” Easier said then done, but if you can do it?
Willy Mac will tell you the answer: Whole worlds will open up to you.