December 3, 2007

Tour Insider: Hackensack Mac Is Back

Jim McGovern, a former tour winner and top 30 money list golfer in the early 90's, has fought his way back to the PGA Tour

McGovern never gave up. At the age of 42 he's made it back to the big show.

McGovern never gave up. At the age of 42 he's made it back to the big show.

He called Monday night from the Orlando airport. He had just finished crying after a round of phone calls celebrating the rebirth of his career. "I'm in," said Jim McGovern, about to board a flight for Newark. "People are looking at me, but I don't care. What a great feeling. I'm ecstatic. I'm cried out."

At 42, McGovern had just punched a ticket back to the big show, surviving the six rounds of PGA Tour Qualifying School at Orange County National to come in two strokes under the number and earn full playing privileges for the 2008 season. His calls went out to brothers, sisters, friends, his wife, his four children, his parents, all back in New Jersey, who had lived by the computer since last week, watching the return of "Hackensack Mac."

What really broke McGovern up was his 78-year-old father, Howard, who moved the family to a home next to Hackensack GC and planted the seed that would ultimately lead the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association to honor the McGoverns as Golf Family of the Year in 1996.

"He's battling the first stages of Alzheimer's," McGovern said. "You notice it more and more. Some days he's fantastic. Some days he's not so sure of his left foot from his right foot."

Monday night, he understood. His son was striding back into the major leagues. "He said, 'Hey buddy,' " McGovern said Tuesday morning from his home. "When I told him thanks he said, 'What are you thanking me for? You did all the work.' I said, 'Yeah, but Dad, you gave me all the encouragement, all the support I ever needed.' He still knows. He couldn't be more excited about it. Sometimes I don't know what he's thinking, but he's ready to go to a golf tournament."

Based on the way he was brought up, it was no surprise McGovern was a golfer who put his family ahead of his profession. Thinking he could parent more and practice less, he went from a tour winner (Shell Houston Open) and a member of the Tour Championship field in 1993 to outside the top 125 money-winners by 1998 and then a Nationwide Tour refugee for most of the past nine years. The kids he played against kept getting younger, while Melanie (born in 1995), Emily ('96), Elizabeth ('99) and Sean ('01) were getting older -- as was their dad.

When times got hard his wife, Lauren, a graduate of NYU Law School, went to work selling real estate and managed the home while Jim was out on tour. There were no signs to indicate it was going to be any different in 2008. McGovern finished 45th on this year's Nationwide Tour money list, but saw something in his rededication that wasn't showing up in his scores.

He opened Q School with rounds of 68-66-68, and then held on. "Of the 417 shots I hit, I'd say 100 were hybrid clubs," he said. "I hit them into par 3s, as the second shot into par 4s, even laying up on par 5s." During Monday's sixth (and final) round, when the wind shifted and came out of the west at 20 mph, McGovern played on guile and guts. He birdied all four par-5s on the Crooked Cat course by laying up, survived a meaningless three-putt bogey on the 108th hole, and took possession of his first tour card since the 1998 season.

"I trusted and believed in myself a lot more this time," he said. "I didn't let the skeletons and bad nightmares of shots hit in years past get to me."

He got home at 11:30 on Monday night. The kids were asleep but there were signs in the lawn, on the walls of his house, welcoming him. He lay in bed with Lauren, "wired for sound," replaying the DVD of the last 20 years. He thanked her again, "for letting me do what I wanted to do."

They talked about the first time around, before the kids were born, when they traveled and had a different type of fun, about the sacrifices they made, how it turned out right on all levels.

Then he woke up Tuesday morning, and it was 65 degrees colder than the heat he faced in Florida, and there was snow on the ground. Lauren mentioned it was too bad about the weather. Jim was glad.

"Are you kidding?" he told her. "I hope it snows for a week. I don't want to think about golf."