U.S. Open

U.S. Open 2024: Willie Mack III traveled hard road, including living in his car, to his major debut

June 13, 2024

Willie Mack III hits a shot during the first round of the U.S. Open.

Ross Kinnaird

PINEHURST, N.C. — In the year when Willie Mack III lived out of his Ford Mustang, his dad knew where he was every night. Most of the time, the accommodations were a hotel parking lot, squeezed between two other cars since it made it harder for staff to find him and kick him out. But as he chased his dream, he kept the truth of his night-to-night living situation away from his mom.

"You know moms," he says today. "They worry more than dads. But at least somebody knew."

Now, having come out qualifying, Mack is playing in his first U.S. Open, and on Thursday he nearly put up one of the best rounds in the entire field. Mack sat at two under, on the first page of the leaderboard, before Pinehurst No. 2 caught up with him. He slid back to shooting one-over-par 71 with bogeys on three of his last four holes. Still, for the 35-year-old from Flint, Mich.—with Tiger Woods, one of only two Black players in the field—it was a banner day on a punishing course and a decent testament to resilience.

There is a certain amount of romance to the concept of living out of your car while you pursue the dream of professional golf, but there couldn't have been much romance in 2018, when Mack pulled over to the side of the road after his car shut down, wondered what was going on, and then learned from a passing motorist that the car was on fire. He got out with time to save exactly one item beyond himself, and he chose his clubs—the rest burned, though he recouped some money in a GoFundMe started by his friend and fellow player Doug Smith.

"I must have loved golf more than I thought I did. To look back at that and go through that, I must have loved it," said Mack, who has more than 70 wins on various mini tours and is the standout graduate of the Advocates Pro Golf Association (APGA) Tour for minority golfers.

He's talking about the fire, but he could be talking about the grind itself—the years that have a way of feeling fruitless, of breaking you down until you want to quit. That happened to Mack more than once, and even when he stood on the verge of a potential breakthrough last year, with full KFT status, he couldn't make the most of it; he was too busy "watching everyone else," he thinks now, and he lost his card. Even then, he didn't quit, and his belief that he's playing well thus far in 2024 is backed up by the fact that he made it through local and sectional qualifying to land at Pinehurst.

His younger brother Alex is on his bag this week, and when he got the call for the qualifying events, it was a surprise reunion for the pair who live across the street from each other in Orlando.

"As of right now, I'm a full-time caddie," Alex said. "I caddied for him last year on the KFT, and halfway through, I was forcefully retired."

When asked for specifics, he said, "I wasn't doing well ... I wasn't doing my job," but today he seems very pleased to be on the bag and away from his job in finance. "It's a lot better than being in the office," he said.


Willie Mack III and his caddie and brother, Alex, talk during the first round.

Andrew Redington

Even though this is Mack's first major of any kind, he's not starstruck. He's played in PGA Tour events before—seven total, with two made cuts—and he's friends with Billy Horschel, who reached out to congratulate him when he qualified. In terms of any interactions this week, Mack didn't name a single pro, but singled out instead the kids that have been following him around.

Mack is soft-spoken, but he's a sharp dresser with bright white earrings (he says he keeps the real diamonds at home, since he's lost too many on the course), and wears the clothes of two of his sponsors, Wilson and Rhoback. His highlight Thursday came on the fourth hole, when his drive rolled into the bunker and he hit what he considers the best 4-iron of his life— 243 yards and almost to the green. From there he made his par, though it took a nine-foot putt.

"I said to my brother, after that second shot, I deserved a par," he laughed.

His immediate goal now is to make the cut—do so in a major and you're automatically exempt into the second stage of PGA Tour Q School. From there, he wants another shot at his card. He may be 35, but he's in good shape and looks younger, and if he hasn't quit yet, through the burning cars and the long nights sleeping in a car in hotel parking lots, you can bet it'll take a lot to put him off the scent.

"I'm the type of person to never give up," he said, "so I'm going to keep fighting."