PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The only thing you may need to know about Will MacKenzie is that he doesn’t have his name on his golf bag. All it says is “Willy Mac.” That’s what everybody calls him. He’s casual, fun, non-traditional and different in all the right ways.
Willy Mac is what used to be called a free spirit. He’s a guy you want to show up at your party.
He quit golf in high school for ten years and picked it back up after Payne Stewart’s U.S. Open win at Pinehurst -- in Willy Mac’s home state, he was born in Greenville -- inspired him. He’s been to Alaska, he’s kayaked, he’s worked as a outdoors guide out West. And now he’s a professional golfer just like every other one on the PGA Tour. Except he’s not like any other professional on the PGA Tour. (Which is a good thing.) Willy Mac recovered from knee surgery last July and finally has his game in shape. He shot a 3-under 67 on a warm and breezy Friday morning at Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course to grab a share of the lead with Steve Stricker at 5 under par. He’s in contention at the Valspar Championship with something that’s halfway between three-days’ growth and an actual beard.
He looks like a Western waiting to happen.
Willy Mac is like every other tour player in one regard, though. He’s always look for a better way to putt. Sometimes, any way to putt. Willy Mac is a ball-striking machine. If he was a putting machine, it would resemble a scatter-gun, at least symbolically. He likes the Copperhead Course. Two years ago, he finished fourth here.
“Last year, I was 6-under and in the lead and then I shot, like, 90 on the weekend,” he joked. It was really 73-71 but don’t interrupt, the man is rolling.
“You’ve gotta ball-strike it here. The best part of my game is hitting 7-iron, 5-iron, 6-iron, 8-iron.”
He’s a serious competitor even if he isn’t always a serious person. He may the easiest laugh on tour.
The putter isn’t always a joking matter. It has often been his pitfall.
“I’m like 290th on the putting stats and there aren’t even that many guys out here,” Willy Mac says.
This week, the putter is suddenly on. He is untraditional on the greens, as you might expect. Sometimes he putts with a conventional grip. Usually if it’s from long range because that grip provides a little more release in the stroke. “Sometimes I hit a home run, though,” he cautions.
So Willy Mac usually starts with a conventional grip at setup, then morphs to a claw grip—or a saw grip—before he putts. He decides how it feels at the last moment before determining which method to use. Willy Mac even changed to a strong forward-press setup two weeks ago at the Honda Classic.
He’d been playing with his pal, Steve Marino, another non-conformist, who urged him to try something totally different with his putting stroke. “I was out at Pebble Beach, I was putting scared, tentative, yippy.”
The exaggerated forward press has him hitting the putt solid, the right distance and on the right line.
“It feels great,” he says. “Kinda hurts my left knee, though.”
But he knows he was plus 2.25 in strokes gained putting for Thursday’s opening round. That stat translated means he was making everything. He finished Friday’s round by running in a 37-footer.
You can ask him to describe that last putt, expecting a complicated breakdown on the break and the grain and the wind’s effect. But he’s Willy Mac. You’re not getting that. “That one was just lucky,” he says. End of story.
Willy Mac has tried crosshanded. It just “doesn’t feel right for me now,” he says. He’s tried the belly putter, but anchoring the club is illegal now, so that’s out.
The Claw, that’s what is working now. A reporter asked him if he used the claw grip for both of his PGA Tour wins.
“Yeah” Willy Mac answers. There’s a pause. There’s silence. Then Willy Mac starts laughing.
“This guy’s like, ‘So why’d you stop?’ Because I’m stupid,” he says, breaking himself up. “The claw is a crutch. It’s a crutch putting regular. Unless you’re a kid growing up and putting that way. Nobody putted crosshanded 30 years ago, did they? Dude, the claw is not necessarily going to work every week.
“I had a nice run putting normal in 2012 when I should’ve had a great year. I putted fantastic that year.”
He’s 41, he’s had 18 top-ten finishes in 226 PGA Tour starts, he’s had another 57 Web.com Tour starts. Willy Mac has won just over $7.5 million during his career. Not bad for a kayaker. But if he could putt…
“If I’m ever top 100 in putting, I’m good,” he says. “If I’m 225th, I need a job in the off-season to make money. Even Adam Scott has gotta putt decent to do anything out here.”
When he finished regaling a small posse of media types with his stories, Willy Mac went over to the railing and began working his way down a line of fans, signing autographs for the next ten minutes. He never stopped smiling the whole time.