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Insights and Observations

Henry's Highlights
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

By Henry Hinton

Greenville's MacKenzie still does it his way

By Henry Hinton
All rights reserved.

6:30-9:00 a.m.

Tune in on the radio or catch the live Internet feed of today's Talk of the Town with Henry Hinton:

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Catch the replays of previous Talk of the Town programs, including Tuesday's show with guest Will MacKenzie:

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Will MacKenzie never attended East Carolina University, although former ECU football Coach Steve Logan once begged him to suit up and handle the place kicking for the Pirates.

In spite of not being an alumnus of the school, MacKenzie's Greenville upbringing in a passionate Pirate family and his involvement with ECU football coach Skip Holtz should make the PGA golfer a favorite of those wearing purple and gold.

In fact, Willie Mac, as he is now affectionately known on the PGA Tour, has become the favorite of many who follow golf around the world. When the new season began just four weeks ago in Hawaii, MacKenzie became the biggest story in golf.

Not only did he lead the first two rounds of the Mercedes-Benz Championship, he grabbed the attention of the media, particularly the Golf Channel — which was covering the event live in prime time — by surfing the Pacific waves before every round and hanging out with the fans and media after he was off the course.

Golf Channel anchors Kelly Tighlman and Nick Faldo could not get enough of the “Willie Mac” story. Unconventional in every way, MacKenzie was hitting the waves in the morning, then hitting the lengths in the afternoon. And he was playing some of the best golf among the participants, all who had landed in Hawaii by virtue of winning a tour event in 2006.

Tighlman and Faldo even invited MacKenzie to stay in the booth and do analysis of the remaining events of the day. Faldo, one the greatest golfers in PGA history, had joked earlier that, since one of MacKenzie’s odd jobs along the way included working security, he could be his security guard at home.

All in good fun, MacKenzie said Tuesday on Talk 1070’s Talk of the Town. [Replay Windows Media Archive...]

“I had to hit him in the chest a couple of times,” he said of Faldo. “We’re totally cool. I don’t mind people poking fun at my lifestyle. I know he sort of talked junk about me being his butler, but if he pays me right I might go do it a couple of weeks.”

Not likely that MacKenzie will be have to be anyone’s butler from this point forward.

MacKenzie’s 2006 win at the Reno-Tahoe Open put him on the course with the likes of Vijay Singh and Charles Howell, III, in Hawaii the first week of January. In fact, MacKenzie’s laid back style in the press conferences each day contained banter about such things as eating Vijay’s unfinished pasta at the pre-game lunch.

Willie Mac became an instant favorite among fans in Hawaii and golf fanatics watching on television around the world. MacKenzie’s openness on international television actually became a problem when he gave his room number at the Ritz Carlton Hotel over the air.

Joking with the Golf Channel air personalities about his background, which included living in his Toyota van for over a year while he traveled the country trying to make the big time, MacKenzie said, “I won’t be sleeping in my van tonight; I’ll be in room 7006 at the Ritz.”

“A rookie mistake,” MacKenzie reported in the press conference the next day. MacKenzie’s phone rang all night with calls from around the world. In typical Willie Mac style, the third year PGA pro said he met some really nice people on the phone, including a former police officer from Wilmington who had been injured in a near-fatal automobile accident and a gentleman from Australia who claimed to be his cousin.

MacKenzie, 32, is one of the hottest names on the PGA tour now, but had he chosen football it is entirely possible he would have been a star kicker at ECU. Logan once referred to MacKenzie as one of the best kickers he had ever seen in high school.

However, after graduating from Rose High in Greenville, MacKenzie’s free spirit was yearning for less structure. In spite of urging from Logan and some begging from his father — an ECU alum and avid Pirate fan — MacKenzie headed for the beach instead of the practice field.

His father, a prominent Greenville businessman, had hoped to see Will wear purple and gold, but the young man many people call the best pure athlete they have ever seen decided to give up organized sports — at least for the moment.

Will says he had even burned out on golf after falling in love with it at an early age.

Mackenzie always used his athletic skills, but after high school it was living it up snowboarding and kayaking in places like Colorado, Utah and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then surfing the warm weather months in places like Costa Rica.

In 1999, Willie Mac was taking a respite from his world travels, visiting his parents in Greenville, when Payne Stewart won the US Open at Pinehurst. He had watched the final round on television with his late father Mac and become inspired.

“I said, 'Dad what do you think? I want to go tee it up,' recounted Willie Mac.

So he headed out to Greenville Country Club where he had spent many warm days as a teenager and realized he had the fever again.

One sad part of MacKenzie’s success is that his father tragically passed away four years ago after contracting a rare virus that suddenly cut off his breathing. By that time Will had started to gain success on the lower circuits like the Hooters and Nationwide Tours, but Mac never got to see his son tee it up on the big tour.

It was in 2005 that MacKenzie qualified for his tour card and made it to the big leagues, the PGA Tour.

However, it was the middle of last season, his second on the tour, that MacKenzie finally struck golf gold by getting his first PGA victory at Reno.

This season MacKenzie is off to an incredible start with a Top 5 and a Top 20 finish in just the first three weeks of the season. The first three events of the year netted the Greenville native $336,427 in winnings. His career earnings (58 PGA events) total $1,491,921.

Life changes when you win an event on the PGA Tour. MacKenzie can now play in nearly any event he chooses. On Thursday he will tee it up at the FBR Open in Scottsdale, AZ, an event he has never been able to get in before.

MacKenzie also continues to give back to the community that he says has given him so much. He has become friends with the ECU coaching staff and was a hit at last year’s Drew Steele-Skip Holtz Golf Classic.

Willie Mac joined one of Coach Holtz’s best friends, former PGA golfer Doug Martin, for a free clinic at Ironwood Country Club. It was all part of the effort to raise funds for special needs children.

After his father’s death, MacKenzie’s likable style and legendary golf skills on the local Greenville courses were enough to attract several prominent local folks to pitch in and help him get started a few years back.

Unlike many professional athletes, success does not seem to have changed Will one bit.

“I thank all the people in Greenville,” MacKenzie said Tuesday. “A lot of people there have helped me a lot. A lot of men and families stepped up and helped me out when I need it. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”

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This page updated 04/21/08 07:05 PM.

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