William McGirt grinds out a solid round to sniff the lead at Masters 2017

April 06, 2017
The Masters - Round One

Andrew Redington

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The first words William McGirt uses to describe his style of play is, “I’m sneaky short.” In golf’s expansive arena of long hitters, this would augur a lifetime of struggle in the game. And mostly, that is what McGirt, a longtime mini-tour grinder, has known.

But a grinder is never short on resourcefulness. And when the winds howled Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club, McGirt might have been one of the few players who welcomed the relative hardships to come.

Playing in his first Masters, the curly haired, slightly stocky father of two was at his sneaky best, posting a three-under-par 69 that was better than anyone else in the 93-player field except for Charley Hoffman. Until Hoffman did a swan dive into back-nine unconsciousness to post 65, McGirt was living a dream inside a dream, leading the tournament he almost gave up on ever seeing except as a spectator.

This is a man who feels like crying on every trip down Magnolia Lane. But when your only “significant” victory before capturing last year’s Memorial came a decade ago at a Tar Heel Tour event, where he won $16,000, sentimentality is difficult to suppress. He also felt like shedding a tear on the first tee, but worried about being put on the clock. Such is a man grateful just to be here.

Then he went on a five-hour tour that wasn’t easy but seemed familiar. It was hard. This guy knows hard, and he slurps it up like a teenager guzzling free soda.

“Honestly, I was just trying to figure out how to get it to the house without hurting myself,” said McGirt, 37, of nearby Boiling Springs, who did so deftly with a round of four birdies, one bogey and several clutch par saves, including a 10-footer at 18. “I was not upset to see it blowing. I love it when it plays tough. I'm not the kind of person that's going to get in a shootout with anybody.”

Which is why he bounced around America for an interminable number of years in questionably road-worthy motor vehicles playing no fewer than seven developmental tours. But stubbornness is another of his attributes, and it finally paid off with his playoff win over Jon Curran at Muirfield Village G.C.

He has called himself crazy for all his years riding shotgun with desperation. Tiger Woods called him an idiot after learning McGirt declined to look at a scoreboard while finishing T-2 at the 2012 RBC Canadian Open, his first real chance at a PGA Tour victory. McGirt, learning something from the 14-time major winner, couldn’t disagree.

But no one can ever say he’s a quitter. “There have been a few times that I thought it might be time to do something else,” he admitted. “I had no clue what I was going to do. So, I figured I'd better get out there and start practicing.”

Which he does with a fervor few can match, according to his caddie, Brandon Antus, who recently said his boss is, “the hardest-working and most committed player, by far.”

Everyone needs a break though, and McGirt got one Wednesday after the Par 3 Contest was washed out for the first time in history. As he and his family were taking photos by the Augusta National clubhouse, up rolled Nicklaus, the six-time major winner, in a golf cart.

“He just told me to play smart and play within myself,” McGirt said, “and he says, ‘If you can win at my place, you can win here,’ because there's a lot of similarities in the two golf courses. There's a lot of holes where you don't have to hit it directly at pins to get it close.”

Needless to say, that encouragement meant a lot.

“I really haven't played that well this year, and you know, he said it's another week, basically, another opportunity,” said McGirt, who has just two top-10 finishes and four missed cuts this season. “It's kind of one of those things where you forget about what you're doing, and you kind of get caught up in being at Augusta and being at the Masters, and just roll with it.”

He’s been rolling with it since he arrived on Friday. He and his wife, Sarah, have tried to savor every minute. “I'd love to be back every year, but I’m not going to walk away and go, ‘Gosh, I wish I would have enjoyed it more, or wish I would have done this or wish I would have done that.’”

So, there he was early Thursday morning on the first tee to watch Nicklaus and Gary Player hit ceremonial tee shots to begin the Masters. He was afraid someone might ask him to move. No one did, so he didn’t budge. “There was never any question that I was not going to be there,” he aid.

At 8 a.m. Friday, he’ll be in the first group off. And there will never be a question that he belongs. He ain’t budging.