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Its Been a Long Strange Trip for MacKenzie

PGA Tour (75x100)KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Will MacKenzie must feel like he's in paradise.
Walking along the fairways of Kapalua, he can't keep his eyes off the waves below and the dozens of surfers in the water. In the distance he can see the Ritz-Carlton, knowing he doesn't have to sneak past security guards to jump in the pool or grab a shower. He gets to stay in the hotel this week, instead of sleeping in the back of his van.
First place at the winners-only Mercedes Benz-Championship pays $1.1 million, last place gets $50,000, and MacKenzie doesn't have to wash any dishes to get his hands on that.
'I told myself when I got in this,' he said. 'Don't come over here and finish last. Let's get a big piece of that cake.'
MacKenzie's story reads like any other golfer from his childhood to now. He was among the best juniors, traveling the country during his summers to play in tournaments with guys like Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Justin Leonard. He made it through Q-school on his first try, and won his first PGA TOUR event in his second year.
It's the part in the middle that makes him stand out in this sport.
Way out.
Not many other players quit the game in high school, skipped college and moved to Montana on a whim. No one else at the PGA TOUR's season opener spent five years sleeping in the back of his van and feeling like he had it made.
He washed dishes at a hotel to earn money for the ski lift. He went a month without a shower in Alaska when he was heliboarding. He figures he cheated death a half-dozen times either rock climbing or in a kayak. Even now, he has limited feeling in toes from frostbite.
Life could not have worked out any better.
'I burned out sooner than later, and I think that's probably a blessing for me,' the 32-year-old MacKenzie said this week. 'If I had gone to college and done that, who knows? I might be right where I am now. But I might have burned out in college and not be here.'
MacKenzie is a PGA TOUR winner now, but that hasn't changed him. He brought his surfboard to Maui, and spent the first three days at Ironwood Beach, pursuing a passion that will never leave.
Adam Scott was with him one afternoon, and thought he was nuts.
'He's got no fear,' Scott said. 'There's a reef under there, and I just saw him go face-first off the top of the wave. And I'm like, 'Oh, Will.' I was waiting for him to come up with a mouthful of teeth. He's fun. He's a fun guy making a racket out there.'
Ask him about his life, and MacKenzie makes it sound like it's no big deal.
'I moved to Montana when I was 19 and snowboarded, kayaked and rock-climbed and worked,' he said. 'That's all I did, every day. And I had a nice little trip to Costa Rica where I surfed for three months in '99. That was very, very, very nice. Then I started playing golf again ... to see if I sort of fell back in love with the game, which I did.'
He fell out of love when he was 14 when he realized it consumed his summers, leaving him no time for fishing, barefoot skiing and being on a mountain in North Carolina. His last two summers, he headed for the Carolina beaches and slept in his van.
And when it was time to leave the nest, man, did he fly.
MacKenzie took Interstate 40 looking for his paradise. Taos? Nah. Durango, Telluride, Crystal Butte? Not quite. Salt Lake City wasn't for him. He stopped for two weeks and worked at Taco Bell to earn some cash and keep going, through Jackson Hole, Wyo., and finally settling in Big Sky, Mont.
'I was like, 'This is the spot,'' he said.
Some may have considered his lifestyle 'roughing it'; for MacKenzie, it was a Ritz-Carlton. Living in his van, cashing a few paychecks from doing the dishes at either the Huntley Lodge or Allgood's Bar and Grill, he thought he was living large.
'I had hot tubs, jacuzzis, pools, access to the lodge ... sort of sneaking around a little bit, maybe,' he said with a grin.
What brought him back to golf is equally amazing.
On his way from Costa Rica, he stopped by his home in North Carolina and watched Payne Stewart, one of his favorite players, win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. He went out to his parents' barn and found his Cleveland blades gathering dust.
'I went out and hit some balls and just sort of pured it,' he said. 'I had some fire in me because of the Payne win. I went to my dad and said, 'What do you think? I want to go tee it up.''
He set a goal of making it to the PGA TOUR, and stuck with it.
MacKenzie won a few times in the North Carolina mini-tours, arranged for some financing from friends at home and went to Florida for more mini-tours, where he competed against Patrick Sheehan and Bart Bryant. Then he chopped it around Canada, the Hooters Tour and finally felt like it was worth giving Q-school a shot. And he made it.
He lost his card the first year, earned it back at Q-school, then had only one top-10 last year -- a one-shot victory over Bob Estes in the Reno-Tahoe Open. He wound up 100th on the money list with $879,965, which is more than he ever made washing dishes.
He still kayaks, and goes all out on a snowboard or surfboard. But this is now his life.
And he loves it.
'I'm all golf now,' MacKenzie said.
And as good as he seems to have it -- a courtesy Mercedes-Benz, butler-drawn baths at the Ritz -- listening to him go over his adventures, you get the idea life was never bad.

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