Flint's Willie Mack III, in RMC on sponsor exemption, makes cut for first time on PGA Tour

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Willie Mack III long has been used to cashing three- and four-figure paychecks. He's going to make at least five figures this week, making the cut for the first time on the PGA Tour.

Mack, a Flint native who has been grinding mostly on mini-tours since leaving college more than a decade ago, was 3 under through two rounds. He made the cut right on the number.

Last place at the Rocket Mortgage Classic will take home more than $10,000, no small thing for Mack, who has been open this year about his struggles while pursuing his dream — he has slept in his car, and has borrowed $10 or $20 at a time from his dad just to he could eat McDonald's.

His dad, Willie Mack Sr., was in the gallery following through Friday's 1-over-73, which followed an opening-round 68 that also was concluded Friday because play was suspended by darkness Thursday.

Flint's Willie Mack III made the cut at 3 under at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

"It would be good," Mack said of making the cut at Detroit Golf Club; when he finished Friday, he didn't know if the cut would move to 4 under. "Just having that experience and confidence going into next week, to be able to play on the weekend in my hometown would be amazing."

Mack, 32, is playing in this third PGA Tour ever — all this season. He also will play in next week's John Deere Classic. All four appearances have been on sponsor's exemption; Rocket Mortgage gave him one, allowing Mack to skip the inaugural John Shippen tournament that was to give an exemption into week's tournament.

He got off to a fine start Thursday at a course he played a lot growing up, in what's now called the Michigan Medal Play tournament.

But a three-plus-hour rain delay set tee times back Thursday, and he didn't finish, meaning he had to be back at the course around 6 a.m. Friday. He wrapped up a 68, had 25 minutes to relax, then got going again.

Mack figured he got about three hours of sleep before arriving at the course Friday.

"I'm tired," he said. "But I think adrenaline kept me going and hopefully it can hold up for the next two days."

Earlier in Friday's second round, Mack actually found himself in the top 10 on the leaderboard, at 6 under. But he didn't make a birdie after his sixth hole, to three bogeys. The wind has been blowing at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, and combined with wet conditions that have made the course play longer, scoring conditions weren't quite as low as the past two years.

Mack, who played in high school at Grand Blanc and college at Bethune-Cookman, has won more than 60 mini-tour tournaments during his professional career, after winning 11 times in college.

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But the opportunities at the bigger stage — money has long been a major obstacle — have been sparse, until his story started getting told this year. He got into the Farmers Insurance Open in January, for his first PGA Tour start. He was awarded the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption into the Genesis Open, for No. 2.

He's also gotten into two Korn Ferry Tour events this year, tying for 62nd in one last month. For that performance, he won $2,807. The most he's ever won in a tournament is $37,000. He's dominated on the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour, which was created to promote diversity in the game, and where he once cashed a check for $27,000. He led the money list on the Florida Professional Golf Tour, earning less than $20,000 for the entire season.

This week could be a boon — and, really, it already has been, particularly with the friend and family support. On Friday, friends and family members wore shirts with his face on them.

"I heard some of my friends," Mack said with a smile. "I wasn't looking, but I know their voices."

Memorable week

Tim O'Neal is heading home, but not without some very fond memories of Detroit.

O'Neal, 48, won the inaugural John Shippen to get into the Rocket Mortgage Classic field, but finished 3 over to miss the cut to the weekend.

He won't get a playing paycheck, but Rocket Mortgage did enter into a one-week sponsorship deal with O'Neal that figures to have earned him at least some money.

"The people here in Detroit have been unbelievable," said O'Neal, a Georgia native who was playing in just his eighth PGA Tour tournament. "They've embraced me like I'm one of their own and it's been a really nice week. Wish I would have played a little bit better.

"I putted horrible this whole week, but sometimes that's golf and you just move on to the next tournament."

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O'Neal hit a whole bunch of greens in his first round, but didn't make a single birdie. He made up for that with birdies on his first two holes in his second round, and three in his first four. But he also bogeyed two holes in his first five, leaving him an uphill battle to make a PGA Tour cut for the first time.

The Shippen tournament, named after the nation's first Black golf pro, was founded to create opportunities for the top Black pro and amateur golfers, men and women, without major-tour status. O'Neal won the exemption into the Rocket, and exemptions into two LPGA Tour events also were awarded.

O'Neal won the 36-hole men's bracket by two strokes to get into the Rocket, where he also got to reconnect with Bubba Watson and Jason Day. They know each other from their days on the now-Korn Ferry Tour.

"It's been great for me," O'Neal said. "It's been an awesome week."

Chips & divots

SHOT OF THE DAY: Couldn't have been an easier choice. Scott Brown made the third hole-in-one in Rocket Mortgage Classic history, and the first in AREA 3-1-3. Brown used a 9-iron to ace the 154-yard hole, the slight draw taking one big bounce and then a little one next to the hole, before hopping in. (The two previous aces came at the fifth, another shorty.) After making double-bogey 7 on the par-5 14th, Brown needed that ace. He finished 3 under, to make the cut on the number.

HOLE OF THE DAY: The 399-yard par-4 13th was a middle-of-the-pack hole in terms of difficulty the last two years — Bryson DeChambeau considered it a drivable par 4 in 2020 — but it showed some teeth on a blustery Friday at DGC. Playing into the wind and with the pin on the back shelf, it snuck up and bit some big names who were cruising right along in the second round, with Matthew Wolff, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson among those who made bogey. The 13th played third-most difficult in Round 2.

STAT OF THE DAY: We have AREA 3-1-3. How about 2-2-2? That's what the scorecard looked like for one of the featured groups Friday, with Max Homa, Watson and Wolff all making birdie late in the afternoon at the par-3 15th — to the delight of an increasingly rowdy gallery. Homa made a bomb putt from well right of the flag, raising his arms in triumph. Then Watson, battling to get back inside the cut line, drained his putt from about 10 feet. And, finally, Wolff, with the best tee shot, knocked in his 5-footer.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Braves won last two nights, I think. That's what it was, for sure." — Chris Kirk, Georgia resident and University of Georgia alumnus, explaining his success this week in Detroit. He was at 9 under through two rounds, a shot off the lead, at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, where he was in contention in 2020 before fading to a tie for 21st with a tough final round.

LOCALS WATCH: Ryan Brehm (Traverse City, Michigan State) — He came in having missed seven cuts in a row, and is running out of time to keep his card for next season. A second-round 67 had him at 6 under. Brian Stuard (Jackson/Oakland) — For the first time, he missed the cut in his home-state event (he tied for fifth in 2019), making a bogey at No. 18 to fall a shot short of playing the weekend. Willie Mack III (Flint) — In his third PGA Tour start, he made the cut right on the number at 3 under. He got to 6 under early in Round 2 before slipping back on the back nine amid some tough wind conditions. Jeff Roth (Plymouth, Boyne) — The oldest player in the field, at 63, the 2019 Michigan PGA section champion struggled to get it going, making just two birdies in two rounds and finishing 9 over.

AREA 3-1-3 UPDATE: Rocket Mortgage has pledged a $313,000 charitable donation should any player go 3-1-3 on Nos. 14-16, at any point in the tournament. Vincent Whaley and Sean O'Hair both are two-thirds of the way there with eagle on 14 and birdie on 16, but Brown is actually the closest because he's got the hardest leg of the feat out of the way, having aced 15 on Friday. Even if he doesn't complete 3-1-3, the ace did trigger a $25,000 donation. 

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984