Home game: Flint's Willie Mack III lands sponsor's exemption into Rocket Mortgage Classic

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — There will be bigger names in the Rocket Mortgage Classic. But there won't be too many better backstories.

Willie Mack III, the Flint native who's been grinding it out on mini-tours for more than a decade before finally debuting on the PGA Tour earlier this year, has been given a sponsor's exemption into Detroit's Rocket Mortgage Classic.

The tournament made the announcement Wednesday, ahead of the third annual stop in Detroit, set for July 1-4 at Detroit Golf Club. Mack got the call a week ago.

Willie Mack III, of Flint, debuted on the PGA Tour earlier this year. In July, he'll play the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

"It was definitely exciting to get that news. I was fortunate to get that news," Mack told The News on Wednesday. "Getting this one, it probably means the most to me to be able to play in front of friends and family, and actually have my dad there.

"I'm just excited to get there."

Mack, 32, and Davis Thompson, a University of Georgia senior who turns 21 next month, received two of the Rocket Mortgage Classic's four sponsor's exemptions. Thompson is the No. 4-ranked amateur in the world rankings.

The tournament will hand out one more exemption, and then give the last one to the winner of the inaugural John Shippen, a two-day tournament leading into the Rocket Mortgage Classic that will feature a field of the top Black men's and women's golfers who don't have status on the PGA and LPGA tours. The John Shippen also will award an exemption into the LPGA Tour's Great Lakes Bay Invitational in Midland. The tournament was created to promote diversity in the sport.

Mack was set to play The John Shippen, until he got the call. Mack likes the purpose behind The John Shippen.

"It's great," Mack said of The John Shippen, named for the nation's first Black golf pro. "It's just a great thing that they're doing to be able to try to get a little bit more diversity into the game of golf. That's definitely a start. I'm definitely supporting that effort."

Mack grew up in Flint, playing the par-3 course Pierce Park, and then played high school golf at Flint Central and then Grand Blanc, where his team won a state championship in 2004 and he finished runner-up as an individual. He won 11 tournaments at Bethune-Cookman, an HBCU in Daytona Beach, Florida.

In 2011, he became the first Black man to win the Michigan Amateur. He won the Flint City Amateur and the Genesee All-Star Golf Classic.

As a pro, he's won 65 times around the country, mostly small-purse titles on the mini-tours. Mack struggled to find sponsorship help — his dad was always his chief backer, sometimes $20 at a time through a wire transfer so Mack could get McDonald's that day. Mack, who used any money he did win to register for more tournaments, was homeless for two years, sleeping in his car but refusing to quit on his dream. He struggled to find opportunities on the bigger stage.

That has changed in the last year. He's sponsored by Farmers Insurance, which helps cover key expenses like travel, and gets him access to better equipment and training.

“The Rocket Mortgage Classic always has strived to support golf’s great young talent, and we are pleased to award these opportunities to Willie and Davis,” Jason Langwell, executive director of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, said in a statement.

“Willie has a successful track record on the mini-tour circuit and considers Detroit Golf Club a home course, so he will certainly have plenty of local support.

"Davis has represented the United States at golf’s highest amateur levels and surely will have a bright future in professional golf.”

Mack made his PGA Tour debut in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in late January, as a replacement for Kamaiu Johnson, a good friend who had COVID-19. He then played in the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in Los Angeles in February, having been selected as the winner of Charles Sifford Memorial Exemption by Tiger Woods, the tournament host and the reason Mack first got into golf.

Mack missed the cut in both tournaments but was more comfortable in his second shot at Riviera. He opened with a 2-under 70, before shooting a 4-over 76.

Coming to Detroit will be like a home game for Mack, not just because of friends and family but because he knows the course so well. Every time he returns home, he plays it. When he's asked around the country his favorite course, he always says Detroit Golf Club. He said it suits his game, and he likes the Donald Ross greens.

Mack will be the fifth Michigan man to play the Rocket Mortgage Classic, after PGA Tour mainstay Brian Stuard (Jackson), and Ryan Brehm (Traverse City), Joey Garber (Petoskey) and Donnie Trosper (Canton).

He hasn't told many people yet about the exemption, but he expects ticket requests to be fast and furious. Dad gets the first because he couldn't attend the PGA Tour tournaments earlier this year when fans still weren't allowed. Dad has been able to watch Mack play in a Korn Ferry tournament, but that's just not the same. He missed the cut at the Huntsville (Alabama) Championship earlier this month, after opening with 69.

"It's been a great year," Mack said, speaking more of opportunities than results. "I haven't finished the way I'd like to in a couple events.

"I've just learned you've gotta stay patient."

For Thompson, this will be his fourth PGA Tour start; he played in the 2020 U.S. Open and Palmer Cup. In the last two years, he's won five amateur tournaments, and recorded 18 top-10 finishes.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984