My ShotDecember 18, 2017

My Shot: Zac Blair

PGA Tour pro Zac Blair on money games won and lost, getting five Phil Mickelson autographs, and two words that will make you a better golfer. With Guy Yocom
PGA Tour Pro Zac Blair
Photographed by Nathaniel Welch at Safari Golf Club in Powell, OhioMy Shot: Zac Blair • 27 • Provo • Utah

Starting my freshman year of high school, my buddy Denny Job and I started skipping out at noon. Every day, there was an awesome money game somewhere around Salt Lake City. Word would get out where the game was—Wingpointe, Valley View, Davis Park—and we'd be there. Skins games, individual matches and team action, with lots of good players and sharp people. Not crazy money, but all you'd want. Those games taught me a lot more than how to make a four-footer when it mattered. It was an advanced education in golf, finance, reading people and handling pressure. When it comes to acquiring street smarts, golf is underrated.

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THERE ALSO WERE SOME EPIC PUTTING GAMES that could get pretty dark. I mean literally. I had a panel of super-bright LED lights installed above the cab of my truck specifically for night putting games around town. My winnings paid for that LED panel, but there were some rough nights. One night we were putting on a green toward one of those miniature three-inch holes you can drill into a green for practice. I was far enough ahead I had to start paying 2-to-1 to keep the other guys playing. The stakes had increased to where there would be real pain if I lost—so now the pressure was on everybody. Going first, I lagged a 50-footer to within a foot. Two of the other three guys hit terrible first putts, one to 15 feet and the other to seven feet. The third guy hit it close like I did. I stood to suddenly make a thousand on that one hole. But the guy with the 15-footer holed his putt, the guy with the seven-footer barely missed and the third guy made his. Trying to jam my one-footer into that three-inch hole, I missed. Not only that, I knocked it six feet long and missed coming back. I dropped a bundle. Four figures. Big money for a kid.

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I'M NOT A BIG GUY. I'm 5-6, probably the smallest guy on tour. I'm not freaky strong, either. I average only 275 yards with my driver, decent for amateurs who might be reading this but way below tour average. But I don't think distance is as important as you keep hearing. On some courses it matters, sure. But give me a firm, fast track, and I can hang with anybody. The only thing that worries me is that bombers you used to count on sometimes driving it wild—Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, for example—are getting straighter. That could be a problem.

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IN AMATEUR GOLF, being a short hitter had its advantages. Hitting first to the green and hitting it close, it would bother people. Hitting a 3-iron up by the hole—I still carry a 3-iron, by the way—would exasperate big hitters who thought they had you. But on the PGA Tour, players are less obsessed about distance than you might think. Even great ball-striking doesn't impress them, because so many guys can stripe it. The best pros seem to realize that getting it in the hole is all that matters, and that how pretty you look doing it is irrelevant. Nobody thinks that just because players like me aren't long, that we can't be dangerous. They know better.

“THERE IS NO HAPPIER CREATURE THAN AN 8-YEAR-OLD GIVEN ACCESS TO A GOLF CART.”

GOLF HAS BEEN MY WHOLE LIFE SINCE I WAS 3. My dad, Jimmy Blair, played in a lot of state Opens where you could ride in carts, and I'd "caddie" for him. He'd prop me up in the seat next to him, my feet not touching the floor. He'd bring me onto the green and have me read putts. I had no clue, obviously. But when he made a putt—and he made a lot of putts—he'd say, "Awesome read." I'd give him yardages, pull clubs for him, the whole deal. All of it totally wrong. But he made me think I was indispensable. It was always "we."

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HERE'S HOW AWESOME MY UPBRINGING WAS. My dad owned a golf facility called Mulligans, which consisted of a nine-hole executive course, lighted driving range with 100 bays, a lot of them heated. There was a miniature golf course, pro shop and snack bar. Growing up I had complete run of the place. Free golf, free balls, free equipment, free food. Every new club that came in, I got to try. Well after closing time, the lights would be kept on for me and my dad or my friends.

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THERE IS NO HAPPIER CREATURE than an 8-year-old given access to a golf cart. Even walking, I would play 100 holes a day, going from 6 a.m. till past dark with short breaks to eat. As a little kid I had a lot of friends because they got to play for free, too. It was like waking up in an amusement park every day. We weren't super wealthy, but in the little world I existed in, I was a millionaire.

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THERE ACTUALLY WERE TWO MULLIGANS FACILITIES, one north of Salt Lake and one just south. My dad was sort of a genius in running them. Water came into play on one hole, total, so it was almost impossible to lose a ball. It was cheap—$10 for nine holes—and easy to get around. You could play nine holes in a little over an hour. It became an amazingly popular place for teenagers to go on dates—miniature golf is an awesome date activity—and on weekend nights the line literally went out the door. Financially, it was about volume. The pro shop, he bought and sold new and used equipment, sort of a forerunner of eBay and various Internet companies. It was fast, easy, fun and offered something for everybody. A template for a type of golf we need these days but don't see much.

Photo by Nathaniel Welch

BECAUSE THE MULLIGANS DID WELL, my dad acquired an indulgence. Every year he got a new mustard-yellow Corvette. When he left town to play somewhere, he didn't always take the Corvette. At 15, before I got my driver's license, I began driving the car to school. I shudder to think what could have happened. This ended one day when the principal called my dad. "Jim, I want you to know Zac is doing OK in school. But could you please see that he not drive your car to school until he has his license?"

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SOMETIMES I HAD TO WORK. When my dad played in the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, we drove there in our motor home. I wanted an Xbox in the worst way to keep myself entertained, but he told me I had to earn it. It was a problem, because in this day and age there aren't a lot of ways for an 11-year-old to make money. When he went out to play a practice round, I noticed fans screaming for autographs from players hanging around the clubhouse. I had this amazing inside-the-ropes credential, and suddenly a light went on. I said to a fan, "Hey, you want Sergio's autograph? Give me $20, and I'll get it for you." I got the autograph, got paid, and over the next three hours, I put the law of supply and demand to work. I charged $30 for a Phil Mickelson autograph—he started to look annoyed after my fifth request—and charged $50 for the gold standard, Tiger Woods. When my dad made the turn, he saw me running around with an extra hat in my hand and asked what I was doing. He was not happy to hear I was scalping autographs, and that was the end of it. But that night, I showed him my take—$250—and reminded him that a deal was a deal. I got the Xbox.

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TIGER WAS, AND IS, THE MAN. Remember the 2000 PGA at Valhalla, where he made that putt in the playoff against Bob May, the famous walk-and-point? I was front row for that. The gallery was packed, but that Sunday was my 10th birthday, and I was about the size of a ferret. I had a technique for slithering around people's legs that was aggressive and foolproof. I was right there, and the magic of it was so powerful. I plastered posters and pictures of Tiger all over my bedroom. I watched a VHS tape about Tiger every night until it wore out. A hat I got him to sign—I hit him up early that week—is still on display in my trophy case. I dreamed of one day playing with him.

“ROTATE, FINISH. PLAY A LOT OF GOLF WITH THOSE TWO WORDS IN MIND, AND YOU’LL BE A DECENT PLAYER.”

THE DREAM CAME TRUE when I was paired with Tiger at the 2015 Memorial. It was a bizarre day because Tiger shot 85, the worst score of his pro career. It was a little tough to watch, because he had some of the worst breaks I've ever seen. On the 17th hole, he hit this incredible iron shot that was heading five feet left of the hole but caught this lone little tree branch and kicked into the water. There were other bounces that made it seem like the golf gods were against him. But he hit a few shots I don't think anybody else could hit. On the second hole, he hit a towering shot from deep rough that flew over a tree and stopped dead on the green. The speed and precision of that shot, and the sound his good shots made in general, were unique. Every putt he hit looked like it was going in, but none did. The best part was how he handled it. He talked to me all day, about Utah, Chambers Bay, all kinds of stuff. My hero worship of Tiger did nothing that day but go up.

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MY DAD WAS ALL POSITIVE, all the time. "You're going to be on the PGA Tour someday," he'd say. "You're special. You can do this." He had to have shreds of doubt whether I would actually wind up making it on the highest pro level—he played the PGA Tour for a while in the 1980s and knew how tough it was—but he never showed those shreds to me. My wife, Alicia, and I are going to have kids someday. That's how we're going to raise them: total positivity. Making them believe they can do anything.

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IT WAS MY MOM, Cindy, who might have had the secret. My first memory is of her playing catch with me. Endlessly throwing baseballs and footballs with me. The early developing of hand-eye coordination and learning a basic throwing motion—the golf swing definitely has a throw in it—that was huge. She passed on her athleticism to me. At Riviera, some of us were throwing a football around while my mom was standing nearby. The ball bounced over to her, and she picked it up and threw it back. Zing! Perfect spiral. Everybody cheered.

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THERE WAS SOME TOUGH LOVE from my dad, though. At a junior tournament one year, I bashed my putter against my bag. He walked out of the gallery and pulled me off the course. After a discussion about how champions are supposed to behave, he sent me back out to keep score for the kids I'd been playing against. It was just the right touch of humiliation. I never bashed my putter like that again.

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I HAVEN'T BASHED, but I've definitely tapped. At the Wells Fargo, I missed an easy five-footer. I tapped the shaft against the bill of my cap, one of those things you do after a near-miss. The putter sort of kept going and hit me in the forehead. When I went to putt on the next hole, I noticed the shaft was bent. I found a rules official, and sure enough, he confirmed it was no longer straight. Instant DQ, because you can't alter a club like that. That was a little embarrassing, because I truly wasn't angry. From now on, I'm not even tapping.

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ROTATE, FINISH. Those two words, my dad told them to me a million times. The swing is that simple. You take the club back on a plane and swing it through on that same plane, allowing the clubface to square up as it passes through the ball. The follow-through is a mirror image of the backswing. All the while, you keep your grip pressure exactly the same. Never tighten or loosen your hands, especially the thumb and forefinger of your right hand. Rotate, finish. Play a lot of golf with those two words in mind, and you'll be a decent player.

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IT'S FUNNY how people will grind on the last shots of the day more than the early ones. Why would you treat the 14th shot of a round as less important than the 72nd—or, for that matter, the 80th? Don't they all count the same? Great players who are really good under pressure, they seem to know this.

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IN UTAH, every week there's an amateur tournament, or two or three, that anyone with a handicap can enter. Gross and net divisions, really good competition, a chance to play new courses. I won a ton of those things. I'd get a $750 merchandise certificate, the USGA max for amateurs, and buy golf balls. They were stacked hip-deep in my room. When my friends ran low, they knew where to go to stock up.

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EVERY TIME I MENTION THIS AMATEUR TOUR, people think it's the coolest thing. Utah also has a tour just for juniors. Why don't all state golf associations do this? Why keep everything on the club level? It turns weekend players into die-hard golfers and turns them into players. I think it's neat that Tony Finau, Scott Pinckney, Daniel Summerhays and I all came out of the same program in Utah, which before was perceived as sort of a backwater.

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ONE YEAR, at the two-day Coral Canyon Amateur, I came in as a plus-3. Tough course, and it being January, everybody was a little rusty. I shot six-under gross, even-par net, and won the net division. I was weirdly excited to win the net prize. My dad was not. When I told him over the phone what happened he said, "So, we're playing for low-net prizes now, eh?"

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JUST AFTER COLLEGE AT BYU, while I was still an amateur, I started hearing about these big-money games in Palm Springs. My buddies and I were passed phone numbers of people there who were looking for action. Flush with cash from some games in St. George, one of my friends and I headed down there. We had games lined up for five straight days. First match we played was against a young guy I'd never heard of and his partner, an ordinary-looking girl. Or should I say woman, because once the $200 a hole with side bets and junk were established, she went from innocent girl to black widow. Not only did she smoke her driver a mile—she played a lot of back tees with us—she made every putt. This match quickly became a nightmare. After 11 holes, the young guy is seven under on his ball, the woman is three under on hers, and we're getting smoked. We started pressing, and from there it just got worse. We had bets going with some other players, too, and at the end of the round we were like Jim Carrey in "Dumb and Dumber," handing out fistfuls of $100 bills to strangers. That night, after agreeing that we shouldn't have driven all night and shown up with no sleep at a course we'd never played, my buddy and I got down to business. We got rested, and over the course of the next few days won our money back and a bit more. I felt no pity for that woman. Given a chance, she would have taken our shoes.

Photo by Nathaniel Welch

AT A WEB.COM TOURNAMENT A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I made a hole-in-one. The hole was behind a ridge running through the green, and an old guy sitting alone in a chair by the green raised his hand to signal that it had gone in. He was totally nonplussed. When we got to the green, my dad, who was walking with our group, asked the guy, "You ever see a hole-in-one before?" The guy says, "Nope. First one I've ever seen." My dad says, "Well, they're pretty rare. You should get a little more excited, because you might never see one again." The old guy shrugged. As we're standing on the next tee, the first guy to hit in the group behind me aced the same hole. Back to back holes-in-one. The old guy in the portable chair just raised his hand again. My dad grumbled, "Why did he even come out to watch?"

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IF YOU FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER @z_blair, you'll see I talk constantly about the Buck Club. For years, my dream had been to build a course and club as outstanding as any in the U.S. The Buck Club will be that place. We're close on securing an incredible piece of land near the mountains east of Salt Lake City and are looking for a fairly small group of founding members who want in on the ground floor of something special. It'll be a type of club different from any within 600 miles. Small pro shop. Simple food menu. A grillroom, but no dining room. Walk or ride, your choice—carts will even have USB ports so you can charge your phone. Killer practice facility. We're talking golf the way real golfers love it, a fun, relaxed place where you won't get arrested for wearing your hat indoors. It's going to happen, so stay tuned.

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BEFORE THE 2014 U.S. OPEN AT PINEHURST, I tried to arrange sort of a tribute. I asked my dad that if I made it to Sunday, would he step inside the ropes on No. 18, take my bag and walk the final hole with me on Father's Day. He declined, softly at first and then firmly. He clearly didn't want to be part of the show. I did make it to the weekend, and on the last hole somehow got 70 yards ahead of my caddie. I turned around to see where he was, and there was my dad, lugging my small bag. Everything had come full circle.


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