Ex-snowboarder on top in Greensboro

Ex-snowboarder on top in Greensboro

Will MacKenzie had nine birdies in his first round.
Sara D Davis/AP

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — As a surfer on the beaches of North Carolina and Costa Rica, Will MacKenzie always had a good time in the sand.

Now he’s back on the golf course, having even more fun staying out of it.

With a resume perhaps better suited for the X Games, the one-time adventure-sport athlete shot an 8-under 64 to take a one stroke lead over four players after the first round of the Wyndham Championship on Thursday.

The former snowboarder, kayaker and, yes, surfer nearly made a hole-in-one and had nine birdies to offset one bogey in taking an encouraging first step toward the second victory of his career.

It was an impressive performance considering the one-time prodigy from Greenville, N.C., quit the sport as a frustrated, burned-out teenager and went more than a decade without playing competitively before rediscovering his passion and relearning the game.

“I was like, ‘This is not that fun,’ and I had a lot of other opportunities in eastern North Carolina to go to the beach and go to the river, water ski, surf, and do all those things … that I love to do, and I just decided – I just sort of slowly went away from it,” MacKenzie said.

“I went away from it for so long that you naturally have a remembrance of a golf swing, but I lost everything else,” he added.

He didn’t show it, cruising through his morning round and leading Lucas Glover, Steve Marino, Brian Davis and Jeff Overton by one stroke. Seven players – Carl Pettersson, John Merrick, Todd Hamilton, Todd Fischer, Greg Kraft, John Huston and 2003 winner Shigeki Maruyama – were two strokes back.

It was a steamy day at the 7,333-yard Forest Oaks Country Club course where temperatures were high and scores were consistently low. After the opening round, 79 players – or, more than half of the field of 156 – were 3 under or better.

“As warm as it was this afternoon … (the morning players) got the smoother end of the greens. We got the heat,” Glover said. “The ball was probably going 20 yards further this afternoon.”

Both Pettersson and Glover started quickly and threatened MacKenzie’s early lead by moving to 7 under early in their back nines, and had their sights on the course record of 62 before fading.

Pettersson bogeyed No. 16 after missing a 6-foot par putt, and had pars on four of his last five holes. Glover, starting on the back nine, birdied seven of his first 11 holes but closed his bogey-free round with seven consecutive pars.

“I don’t think (Bill) Parcells coaches in the fourth without knowing what the score is,” Glover said. “I knew what was going on. I just kept trying to make birdies. (Watching the leaderboard) didn’t change anything.”

Overton hit 17 greens, had three straight birdies on Nos. 14-16 and seemed poised to tie MacKenzie, but he lipped out a 4-foot birdie putt on No. 18 when he said his shot was knocked offline by a divot.

“You’re going to miss some. Whenever the greens are getting beat up late in the day, you’re going to do that occasionally,” Overton said.

But the story of the day clearly belonged to MacKenzie, who at age 14 walked away from the sport for 11 years.

For a while he lived in a van in Montana, spending his summers kayaking and his winters snowboarding. He surfed the shores of Costa Rica and eastern North Carolina. Once in the mid-1990s he even considered kicking field goals for coach Steve Logan at his hometown school, East Carolina.

At 25, he was lured back to the links after watching his hero’s final professional victory: Payne Stewart’s fist-pumping triumph at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, one of MacKenzie’s favorite courses, and the accomplishment prompted him to pick up the clubs again and work his way up the sport’s ladder. He joined the PGA Tour in 2005.

“I saw the competitive … flare involved,” MacKenzie said. “Tired of beating myself up. I was in a little mini mid-life crisis. I didn’t know if I wanted to go back to Montana or Alaska or go to France … I hit some balls and I was like, ‘Wow, this is fantastic. Maybe I want to play again.”’

Among the highlights of MacKenzie’s round Thursday: a near-miss on the 226-yard, par-3 eighth. He used a 4-iron to drill the flagstick, then tapped in a 3-inch putt for birdie. MacKenzie then opened the back nine with birdies on five of seven holes, rolling in a 21-foot birdie putt on No. 16 during his march up the leaderboard.

MacKenzie also led after the first round of his only PGA Tour victory, a one-stroke win last August in the Reno-Tahoe Open.

“I love sleeping on a lead,” he said. “It’s not going to bother me. Well, maybe on Saturday night.”

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