October 26, 2021

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The Willie Mack III story: From living in his car to hopes of riding a Rocket to the PGA Tour

FLINT – Willie Mack III’s life story reads like something out of a Hollywood movie.

It’s the story of a young Black golfer from Flint who once lived out of his car while trying to break into a sport dominated by white players. Now the 32-year-old golfer is trying to write his next act – qualifying for the PGA Tour, a rare feat for an African American.

After getting a sponsor’s exemption into this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club, Mack could get PGA Tour status for two years with a victory. A top-10 finish would earn him an exemption into the next PGA Tour event.

Only four Black players are full-time members of the PGA Tour this year – his hero Tiger Woods, Harold Varner III, Cameron Champ and Joseph Bramlett. They’re following in the footsteps of Black golfing pioneers Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Calvin Peete and Jim Dent.

Like Sifford, Elder, Peete and Dent, who all had to battle various forms of racism as they tried to play on the PGA Tour, Mack said he also encountered his share of prejudice during his years playing junior golf.

“Growing up, going to some courses … you get looks or just don’t get treated the same way. But I think that’s just life. You have to deal with it, keep your head on straight and keep moving.”

Willie Mack III, seen here in 2002, was inspired to being playing golf after watching Tiger Woods take the sports world by storm. (MLive File Photo by Steve Jessmore)The Flint Journal

The early years

Mack started out as a scrappy golfer from Flint with ill-fitting clubs who caught the golfing bug when Tiger Woods became a national sensation and Mack was encouraged to play golf by his father.

Although he has since remarried, Mack’s father Willie Mack Jr. was a single dad when his son was making a name for himself on the junior golf ranks. A social worker for the Genesee Health System, Mack Jr. financed his son’s junior golf career as they traveled around the county for various events.

But it wasn’t easy to do on one paycheck.

In fact, their home went into foreclosure twice although they never lost it thanks in part to Willie Mack Jr.’s parents, who helped their son catch up on the mortgage payments he missed.

Things got even tighter financially when Willie Mack Jr. was making two house payments after establishing residency in Grand Blanc so Willie III could play high school golf there.

That has Willie III wanting to succeed and reach the PGA Tour for his dad as much as himself.

“Those times I was in my car, somebody asked me, ‘Why didn’t you quit?’” Mack recalled. “Clearly, I want to succeed for myself and be able to get to the next level, not only for me but for him, too.”

Willie Mack Jr. said he never considered telling his son that golf was simply too expensive and he should find another career option.

“That never crossed my mind. Never crossed my mind,” Mack Jr. said. “Financially, I was struggling but he was doing good. He didn’t give me any problems as a father. At that time, I was single. Everything was coming out of my check.

“Some way, somehow I was going to make it happen for him and do what I had to do financially for him to reach his goal.”

Willie Mack FJGA

Willie Mack III holds the Phil Mickelson Division first-place trophy after winning the Flint Junior Golf Association’s 9-hole division at age 13 in 2002. (MLive File Photo by Stuart Bauer)

Kid clubs

Noted Flint-area instructor Jack Seltzer recalls the first time he saw Mack hitting balls before becoming his instructor.

Seltzer, who has won several of Michigan’s top pro events, was giving a lesson on the outdoor range at Inside Swing in Burton when he saw a youngster at the far end of the range banging away at balls.

“He had a good golf swing but I noticed he was fighting it,” Seltzer recalled. “He was pretty strong, even at 12. He had a set of the clubs for kids, the real whippy shafters. He had a hard time controlling the golf ball because he swung at it pretty good.

“I went down and was watching him and because the shaft was so soft, he’d hit it off to the right and he’d try to fix it but couldn’t do it. I was talking to his dad and I said, ‘You know, those clubs don’t fit him. They’re terrible.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, I know but we can’t do anything. I can’t afford that right now.’

“At the time I was getting my clubs from Titleist and they had just sent me a new set of irons and I had the old set in my trunk. So I took the 7-iron out and said, ‘This is probably a little long for you so I want you to choke down and hit it.’ And he just peeled off three or four shots.

“His dad says, ‘Those are nice but we can’t afford it.’ And I said, ‘Well, can you afford free?’”

Seltzer was the first of several people who helped Mack pursue his dream.

Willie Mack III Grand Blanc

Grand Blanc won its first boys golf state championship in 2004, the same year Willie Mack III transferred from Flint Central. (MLive File Photo by Ryan Garza)The Flint Journal

State champion

Mack began making a name for himself locally while playing high school golf at Flint Central as a freshman and sophomore.

Mack’s father asked Seltzer if his son should continue playing at Central or move to Grand Blanc, one of the most affluent communities in the Flint area and one that had a renown golf program. Located just a couple of miles from Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club, where Woods won the Buick Open three times, Grand Blanc had been a state runner-up four times but had never won a state championship before Mack arrived.

That quickly changed as the Bobcats won the 2004 state championship during Mack’s first year on the team.

“He had talent,” Seltzer said. “It all comes down to … what are you willing to give up to do it? What are you willing to spend? And I mean spend in your time and devotion. It’s got to be something you want to do. It’s tough. You’ve got to work at it hard.

“And he worked at it hard, sometimes too hard. Sometimes he would hit a bad shot and OK, he’s got to change everything. I’d have to bring him down and say, ‘Look, you hit a bad shot. Don’t worry about it. Let it go.’ He’s kind of a perfectionist but works very hard at it.”

Willie Mack Genesis Invitational

Willie Mack III met his idol, Tiger Woods, after playing the second round of the 2021 Genesis Invitational near Los Angeles. (Ryan Kang | The Associated Press)AP

Meeting Tiger

It was at this year’s Genesis Invitational in Pacific Palisades, Calif. that Mack got to meet the man who inspired him to begin playing golf more than 20 years – Tiger Woods.

Woods quickly became a dominant force on the PGA Tour after turning pro in August 1996 at age 20 after winning the U.S. Amateur Championship an unprecedented three straight years. He won the fifth PGA Tour he entered as a pro, was named Rookie of the Year and then won the first of 15 major championships at the 1997 Masters.

By June 1997, he was the No. 1-ranked player in the world and seeing a man of color like himself take the golf world by storm led to Mack taking up the sport.

Inspired by Woods, Mack became an Flint Junior Golf Association champion in 2003 and won virtually every local tournament – including the City Amateur three times – as he grew up idolizing Woods.

When Woods announced in January that Mack was going to get an exemption into the Genesis Invitational – Woods is the tournament host – Mack’s father was left with tears running down his cheeks after he heard the news.

Despite missing the cut, Mack got the thrill of a lifetime when he received word in his hotel room that he should return to Riviera Country Club near Los Angeles to meet somebody special. Yup, Tiger Woods wanted to spend some time with the kid from Flint.

“I kind of put two and two together,” Mack said. “I kind of got nervous when I was at the hotel. I got there and … I thought it was going to be a hi-and-bye kind of thing but we had lunch for an hour.

“It was pretty good to just be able to talk to him and meet somebody you grew up admiring. We just talked about normal stuff. He gave me a little advice just to keep going and don’t give up and hopefully he’ll see me out there soon. He’s a great guy.”

Mack said they didn’t take about race but just chatted like two guys having lunch after a round of golf.

A couple of days after their meeting, Woods was in a horrific car accident near L.A. that has threatened his golfing future.

Mack, like many other pro golfers, is hoping Woods is able to return to the PGA Tour.

Willie Mack state amateur

In 2011, Willie Mack III became the first African-American to win the Michigan Amateur Golf Championship. (MLive File Photo)

‘Something special’

In 2005, Seltzer moved to Florida to become part owner of a course there and that’s when Mack began working with Bill Baldwin, another of the Flint-area’s top instructors at the time.

Like Seltzer, Baldwin saw something special in his new pupil and did whatever he could to help further Mack’s blossoming career.

“At the time, it was a huge Tiger Woods-era so Nike was really popular and I happened to be on the Nike staff,” said Baldwin, who now gives lessons at Oak Creek Country Club in Sedona, Ariz. “We had the same shoe size so I would give him my shoes and anything I could. I got him a staff bag with his name on it.

“We’ve always kidded each other. I said ‘Willie, when you get out there (on Tour), I’m going to meet you and we’re going to go the Tour trailer and just get an arm load of equipment.’ Willie’s tools weren’t always the sharpest and it was a bit of a handicap for him but oh my goodness, what he did with what he had. He had a special gear.

“Ashley Bauer (also a Grand Blanc state champion who played at Michigan) was another one. Those two, if they got it to 4-under they’d go 5, they’d go 6, they’d go 7. Their game would actually get sharper where most of us, we get it 2- or 3-under and we’re starting to protect it. I knew I had something special there to work with.

“That’s very hard to teach that ability to go low and have the confidence to keep going and not try to protect a lead.”

Mack received interest from several colleges that included Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, but only one offered him a full-ride – Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach. So, he headed south to begin the next chapter of his golf career.

At Bethune-Cookman, Mack won 11 tournaments before capturing perhaps the biggest championship of his career after graduating. In 2011, he became the first African-American to win the Michigan Amateur Championship and turned pro at the end of the summer.

Willie Mack III

Willie Mack III set a tournament scoring record when he won the Flint City Amateur Championship for the third and final time. (AP File Photo)AP

Playing for pay

Mack began his pro career like many other players, entering state opens and mini-tour events on circuits such as the Florida Professional Golf Tour – he was the leading money winner in 2011 and 2012 – as well as the Advocates Professional Golf Association Tour.

He was the Player of the Year on both tours in 2019.

Mack attended PGA Tour Qualifying School several times without success although he did qualify to play on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica circuit in 2018. But the prospect of spending a couple thousand dollars to play in events there without the guarantee of a paycheck wasn’t feasible.

It was during his early mini-tour days that Mack began sleeping in his car or crashing on the couch at the home of friends to save money.

That wasn’t something he shared with many people until playing in his first PGA Tour event.

“My first year out, it was a good year and then the second and third year was kind of a struggle, sleeping in and out of my car for a year and a half when I was down here in Florida,” he said. “Those were some tough times.

“But like I said before, I’m glad I went through it and it made me not only a better person but just a better golfer for the future. I don’t think anything can get to me now, getting through all that.

“I’m kind of a private person. I like to work hard … and don’t want any handouts or things like that so I never told anybody. It was fine once it came out. I got a lot of support from a lot of people. I think it worked out well in the long run.”

Mack says racial problems haven’t been a huge issue since turning pro. One advantage today’s Black pros have that their predecessors didn’t enjoy was the APGA Tour, which was formed to promote diversity in golf and is aimed at giving more opportunities to African-American pros.

“Over the last 10 years since I’ve been playing professionally, I haven’t really had too many issues with anything,” he said. “You go to the same tournaments, you see the same people so you become friends with people and if not friends you see them on a regular basis and you say hi or play well. I really haven’t had too many issues. Some people might but I personally haven’t had any.

Willie Mack III

Willie Mack III still has his sights set on reaching the PGA Tour fulltime. (MLive FIle Photo by Megan Spelman)The Flint Journal

The next act

There are a couple of different ways Mack could earn a spot on the PGA Tour.

If Mack doesn’t win or at least finish in the top 10 for the Rocket Mortgage Classic that begins Thursday, he can still enter events via exemptions or Monday qualifying tournaments. Players can also earn status through their performance on the Korn Ferry Tour. Three victories in one season on the Korn Ferry is good for an automatic promotion to the PGA Tour.

Mack has played in two Korn Ferry events this year. He missed the cut by four shots in last month’s Huntsville Championship before tying for 62nd June 13 in the BMW Charity Pro-Am, where he turned in rounds of 67 and 66 en route to a final score of 9-under-par 276.

Mack has also tried to earn a spot on the Tour through the Qualifying tournament, which was abolished in 2013 but Mack said he has heard rumors it might be making a comeback and that could be an option.

Mack’s financial situation got a boost when Farmers Insurance signed him to a two-year endorsement deal. He wears the company’s logos on his golf clothes, receives a stipend to help with expenses and was given an exemption into Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open in January, when he made his PGA Tour debut.

Mack’s deal with Farmers expires at the end of the year and he’s hoping it will be renewed. He’s also in negotiations with other companies about getting sponsorship money. That includes apparel companies.

The relationship with Farmers has eased Mack’s mind considerably.

“Being able to ask them for any help or them helping me out financially with the sponsorship has been amazing actually, just having their name on my shirt and my clothes,” he said. “It gets your name out there a little bit more than it would be with a local sponsorship that’s a little smaller.

“I’ll go in the gas station all the time with my golf clothes on and everybody knows the little slogan from Farmers so I hear it a lot. It’s cool to be part of brand like them.”

Baldwin thinks other companies, especially those owned and operated by minorities, would be foolish not to jump on Mack’s bandwagon. He thinks it would not only benefit Mack but any company that could help tell Mack’s story.

That story includes the time Mack watched his car caught fire on a Florida highway in 2018, one day after he had the engine in his 2012 Kia replaced. Mack was able to save his wallet and golf clubs before the car was engulfed in flames.

“With the maturity and all these hard-fought wins, the travel and survival, I hope that now his story gets told and people really embrace him,” Baldwin said. “Oh man, would that be such an extra club in his bag, so to speak.

“If corporate America doesn’t give this man another leg up, I don’t know what they’re looking for. They could really help this young man and he is good enough in my professional opinion. Given a chance with the right equipment, with a roof over his head, with three square meals a day, he can play the Tour.

“My goodness, life has certainly thrown a lot of hard fastballs at him and he’s managed to hit them. I’m so proud of him.”

MORE:

Willie Mack III misses cut at Genesis Invitational

Mack spent 18 months living in his car as young pro

Willie Mack III wins Michigan Amateur Championship