Hughes' moxie helps propel rookie to first Tour title


ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – It was not an easy night for Mackenize Hughes.

Against his better judgment, he watched replays of Sunday’s action at the RSM Classic – his bogeys at Nos. 2, 6 and 11 to make the last official PGA Tour event a five-man free-for-all, his missed 10-footer at the second extra hole that would have been a twilight walk-off.

He received a text message from his idol, fellow Canadian Mike Weir, that read: “Good luck.” He even envisioned holding the trophy high and all that would mean, like an invitation to the Masters and a two (plus)-year Tour exemption.

No pressure there.

He did everything a sports psychologist would probably tell him to avoid like a slippery, downhill putt, before finally doing the only thing he could control, roll in that 17-footer for par at the third playoff hole on a blustery morning at Sea Island Resort.

“Slowly but surely I kept going and kept pushing forward,” said Hughes, a Tour rookie in name only after one of the more audacious performances of 2016. “But it was so hard, every night leaving the golf course being the leader and dealing with all these things for the first time.”

Hughes, a 25-year-old Charlotte, N.C., resident via Ontario, led wire-to-wire at Sea Island, opening with a 61 and playing his first 45 holes without a mistake, without even a hint of uncertainty.

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He slept on the lead every night, although he acknowledged that he didn’t do much sleeping on Sunday after finishing 72 holes tied with four others. Hughes had a chance to avoid just the third unscheduled Monday finish this year on Tour, but his 10-footer for birdie on the second playoff hole slid by the cup.

Nice try, Mac. See you in the morning.

“I would have loved to have won it right there rather than having to wait the whole night and think about that 10-foot putt,” he shrugged, offering a glimpse into his no-nonsense personality.

But then Hughes has spent a good amount of time since leaving Kent State and turning pro in 2013 with his back against the metaphorical wall. He did little in 2014 on the Tour that would suggest he was ready for primetime and until the Price Cutter Charity Championship on the secondary circuit in August he was eyeing another trip to Q-School.

But he won that event to secure his first trip to the Tour. It’s called moxie, the unquantifiable element that separates would-be champions from the genuine article.

There were signs of that fight on Saturday, when Hughes went from a four-stroke lead early in the round to trailing with a triple bogey-7 at the 11th hole. But he rebounded with three birdies late in his round to reclaim the lead.

And he did it again on Sunday, after bogeys at Nos. 2 and 6. Like a Sea Island sand gnat, Hughes wouldn’t go away, wouldn’t play the role of wide-eyed rookie even against veterans like Billy Horschel and Camilo Villegas.

On a course that had played to the softer side of fun all week, Hughes played his last seven holes (including the three playoff frames) in even par. It was so Mackenzie.

After trading pars on the first two playoff holes and enduring a fitful extra night, Hughes tried to hold a 4-iron against a biting wind early Monday, but he pulled his tee shot long and left at the par-3 17th hole into what he called “jail.”

His chip was less-than-stellar and left him a downhill, 17-footer for par.

“Before I hit it, the thought was just make them think about it. Put this putt in first and if you can be the first guy in, put the pressure back on them, and that's what happened,” Hughes said.

The remaining three contenders – Horschel bogeyed the first extra hole to narrow the field to four – also missed the green and faced par putts of various lengths. Blayne Barber missed from 13 feet, Henrik Norlander from 12 feet, and finally Villegas’ attempt from 8 feet grazed the right edge of the cup.

“Standing there watching them all putt, I was way more nervous than when I was putting mine, just to watch them because as each guy went down, it just became that much more real that it might happen,” Hughes said. “Then when it came down to Camilo, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, if he doesn't make this, then I'm the winner.’

“I was at a loss for words at that moment.”

It took 75 holes and five days, but for Hughes his breakthrough was a study in psychological strength if not a stellar short game.

Earlier in the week, Hughes called his swing unconventional, and the same could be said for his mental approach to what was a mentally exhausting week. He didn’t hide from the obvious – Masters invitation, Tour exemption, etc.

He didn’t have to.