Farmers Insurance Open

Willie Mack III is playing the Farmers for an awful reason, but hopes to make the most of the opportunity

January 27, 2021

Willie Mack III checks his scorecard during the first round of an APGA Tour event on the Slammer & Squire Course at World Golf Village on July 9, 2020 in Saint Augustine, Florida.

Keyur Khamar

SAN DIEGO — This was supposed to be a very different week for Willie Mack III. On Thursday, he was set to defend his title in a mini-tour event on the Advocates Professional Golf Association at The Crossings at Carlsbad in North San Diego County. Then on Saturday, he was to compete in another APGA tournament on the Torrey Pines North Course that runs concurrent to the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open on the South.

All of that changed rather shockingly for Mack in a matter of hours. On Monday, Kamiau Johnson—Mack’s good friend and fellow APGA player—had to withdraw from his sponsor’s exemption spot in the Farmers after testing positive for COVID-19, and Mack was named as his replacement.

It is not the way Mack would have chosen to get into his first PGA Tour event, but it is no less important for him to have a start on the big tour after he’d already received the sponsor’s exemption into next month’s Genesis Invitational at Riviera.

“I know it’s a dream come true for both of us to get our first two starts the next four weeks and it's just an unfortunate situation,” Mack said. “I’m friends with Kamaiu, so I talk to him all the time, and I know he was so excited to play this week and I was cheering him on. I’m just going to go out there this week and not only play for me, but also play for him.”

Johnson’s situation became even more concerning when he tweeted late on Monday night that his mother has COVID-19 and had to be rushed to the hospital with breathing issues.

Mack was an obvious choice to replace Johnson in the Farmers because the two have similar backgrounds, and the tournament has worked to provide more opportunities for minority players through its association with APGA and its founder, Ken Bentley. The concurrent APGA event was held for the first time on the North Course last year, and after Farmers CEO and President Jeff Dailey met Johnson and Mack, he offered them both sponsorships.

“He changed both of our lives for our career, and what he’s done for the diversity of the game, putting me and Kamaiu on board, it’s been amazing,” Mack said.

Mack is 32 and grew up in Flint, Mich. Taught the game by his dad starting at 6 years old, he starred in golf at Grand Blanc High School and won 11 individual titles in college while playing at Bethune-Cookman. In 2011, he became the first Black player to win the Michigan Amateur. He turned pro, and there were some promising early returns. Mack won the money title on the Florida Professional Golf Tour and made it to second stage of PGA Tour Q School, missing out, he said, on the finals by two strokes.

“So I kind of got into a little groove of ‘maybe this is easy,’ ” Mack said on Wednesday. “Then the next two or three years after that it was a struggle. I left home that summer and told my dad I was going to Florida. I had no money. It just turned into a hassle and a struggle, but I just kept fighting and I’m here today.”

Mack said that for at least a year and a half he lived out of his car while playing in tournaments.

Why did he stick it out?

“I just never quit,” he said. “My parents always taught me, if you start something, you finish it. I just always had that mindset, and that mindset will always stick with me.”

While the Farmers entry came as a surprise, it was far different than the call Mack got recently telling him that he’d been selected by the Tiger Woods Foundation for the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption into the Genesis.

“Getting that call from the Tiger Woods Foundation, it was a dream come true,” Mack said. “After I got off the phone, I called my dad and he started crying. Kind of made me tear up.”

Mack dived into practice at Torrey on Tuesday, playing a round on the North Course with Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland. He barely got to see the North in the APGA event last year because it was draped in fog. “Teeing up on the first hole [on Tuesday] I could at least see the green,” Mack joked.

This year’s experience will be far different than anything Mack has had playing golf. Recalling one mini-tour event last year, he said the greenskeepers at the course didn’t know the tournament was coming and aerated the greens before play. You won’t hear him complaining like some others might about the bad breaks of bumpy Poa annua.

“I’m just excited,” Mack said, “to get out here this week and play on some great greens.”