The PGA Tour’s Will Mackenzie on kayaking, living out of his van and not showering for 30 days…
It’s 11:00 a.m. on a Thursday, three days before the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Will Mackenzie, 32, on the Tour’s Top 100 Money List in 2006 with $880,000 in earnings, is in the living room of his home in nearby Jupiter. He’s getting ready to go out and practice, but first he travels down memory lane—one far different than that of any other player on the Tour.
“It doesn’t get much better than kayaking a great river with your bros,” he says, “and surfing nice waves on the fly.”
You won’t hear such blasphemy coming from the likes of Tiger, Vijay Singh or Sergio Garcia. Just a year ago the prim and proper PGA wouldn’t even allow anybody with a beard to play. Now they have a former dirtbag kayaker climbing their ranks, one who once lived in his van for five years straight and didn’t shower for 30 days.
Such is the enigma–and charisma—of Will MacKenzie. After tying for fourth place and winning $260,000 at last January’s Mercedes Benz tournament in Maui, ESPN.com called him “the best story in golf we’ve heard about in a long, long time.” They did this because of his van-living, shower-conserving background, but also because while other players were practicing their chip shots on the green, he was surfing the green at a nearby break called Shitty’s. The unorthodox practice regimen helped. At the next week’s Sony Open in Honolulu, he shot a 65, his best round of the year, en route to picking up another cool twenty grand.
He’s the first to admit that’s a lot of shuttle money. By November, after playing in 30 events throughout 2007, he’ll be 73rd on the Tour with three top 10 finishes and $1,116,507 in annual winnings. For his career that puts him at more than $2.2 million.
But he’ll readily admit that kayaking and other action sports–including snowboarding, climbing and surfing—have helped him obtain the greenbacks he’s earned on the greens.
Willie Mac, as he’s known, is reminded of his very un-PGA-like background—involving a very different kind of stroke than the one he’s employing now–every time he smacks whitie near the water. And his unorthodox rise to the Tour says wonders about what kayaking and other action sports can bring to a more genteel game combining pressure, reading terrain and swinging a stick through the air.
MacKenzie the Maverick grew up in the flatlands of Greenville, North Carolina, water skiing, surfing, hunting and squeezing in other sports between rounds of golf. By age 14, golf had taken over and he was one of the top juniors in country. But he quit completely after his sophomore year to move on to greener off-the-greens pastures.
“I just burned out and wanted a change,” he says of taking nearly 10 years off from the game. “I felt like I wasn’t able to do anything else anymore.”
Living in a van for five years might not sound like greener pastures. But the lifestyle it offered certainly was, especially when he discovered whitewater at age 19 guiding rafts and learning how to kayak on the French Broad and Nolichucky rivers. His first boat was as unconventional as his Tour background: a used, camouflage-painted Scorpion from Savage Designs. Like it, he blended into his new boating surroundings quickly. “There was a great ledge hole on the French Broad that we’d hang out in every afternoon,” he says. “I got good pretty quick. I found that I liked squirrelly boats and being on edge.”
On edge plenty these days playing with the likes of Tiger, he made the move from paddling’s Putt Putt to Pebble Beach in 1995 when he signed on as a video boater on the Lower Gauley, and eventually guided on the Upper. “From then on I was hooked,” he says. “Kayaking’s all I wanted to do.”
This, of course, led to the infamous dirtbag years. That fall he road-tripped to Taos, Durango, Telluride, Crested Butte, and Salt Lake, eventually ending up in Jackson where he ran out of money and took a job at Taco Bell (a fact not lost upon ESPN.com). A month later he arrived in Big Sky, Montana, where he settled in his van, washed dishes and recreated, never touching a club. “I snowboarded, kayaked, and rock-climbed,” he says. “That’s all I did, everyday.” In the summers he guided and safety boated on the Gallatin and Madison rivers, and notched such runs as the Middle Fork of the Salmon at high water, Colorado’s Gore Canyon, and “tons and tons of creeks.” The closest he made it to the greens was paddling the river of the same name whenever he made it back home to North Carolina.
The golf bug bit again when he saw Payne Stewart win the 1999 U.S. Open in North Carolina. So he stowed his paddling gear and dusted off his clubs, eventually joining the PGA Tour in 2005. The time off helped. He finished 179th on the Tour’s money list his first year, and cracked the top 100 in 2006, highlighted by winning the Reno-Tahoe Open in his 47th career start. “Winning that was kind of like the first time I ever paddled the Green,” he says. “It was a very spiritual day.”
He finds other analogies between the two shaft-oriented sports as well. “They’re both very visual, making you read ahead,” he says. “You try to see what you want to happen, and then rehearse it in your mind.” He also notes that there are key differences. “Making a big putt is all in your mind, and then in your body,” he says. “I never sit in an eddy thinking about each stroke before I make a move–I don’t micro-analyze things in kayaking like I do in golf. I usually just size it up and go.”
There’s also a difference in the pressure you feel. “My heart beats like crazy in golf because I’m more scared of the outcome,” he says. “It’s more pride preservation. You’re not as worried about that when you’re kayaking. Still, if you miss a putt, you don’t end up pinned against a log.”
While he still paddles to go fishing and hunting, he admits whitewater has gone by the wayside. “It was beginning to work me,” he says. “I did a lot of high-bracing in holes, and once tweaked my right rotator cuff pretty good. It doesn’t affect my game, but when I look at videos of my swing I can tell it’s still there.”
What’s also still there is an undying love for a sport whose kinship is a far cry from that of the local clubhouse. “A lot of guys on the Tour think I’m a little crazy,” he says. “But I just love kayaking and all these other sports–everyone else here is pretty much golf, golf, golf.”
Of course, these days, so is MacKenzie. At Palm Beach’s Honda Classic, he finishes in the top 22, picking up $47,000. At the following week’s PODS Championships, he adds another $36,000 to his tally, putting him at the $444,000 mark for the year and over $1.6 million in his career. “I usually start off bad, but this year I’m doing better,” he says. “It’s kind of like boating—I have to warm-up a little.”
Like nailing his roll—of which he says he’s done thousands–all he has to do now is keep his head down and hit the holes rather than miss them. Do that consistently and he could become the first person to wear the green jacket who’s also paddled it.