NAPA, Calif. – When his son hit the final shot of the Safeway Open, a 4-foot putt that put his name on the trophy, Jeff Champ was already dialing the phone.
After all, there was only one call to make. Without Mack Champ, there would be no Cameron Champ. The golf bug skipped a generation among the family, so it was Mack who gave his grandson his first set of clubs at age 2. It was Mack who hit whiffle balls back and forth over the family house with Cameron as a child quickly fell in love with the game.
It was Mack who was on the phone moments after Champ’s breakthrough win last year at the Sanderson Farms Championship, one that signaled his transition from a long-hitting prospect with potential to a PGA Tour winner. And it was Mack on Line 1 again Sunday, as father and son embraced on the final green and speakerphone brought three generations together to celebrate through the tears.
Champ’s parents were slow to tell their son about his grandfather’s declining health. Equipped with a diagnosis since July, Jeff Champ wanted Cameron to maintain his focus on the end of the most recent Tour season and he didn’t want Mack’s terminal Stage IV stomach cancer to become a distraction.
They made a similar decision last week, when Mack opted to pursue in-home hospice at the family home in Sacramento, the same choice his wife made a few years earlier. Cameron was busy defending his title at the Sanderson Farms Championship, and he wasn’t made aware of the dire nature of his grandfather’s condition until returning home on Sunday.
“We had to let him know at that point,” Jeff Champ said. “We knew it was kind of late notice, but we wanted him to play golf and not worry about Grandpa.”
Champ’s Safeway schedule was immediately flipped on its head. He skipped planned practice rounds and asked out of the Wednesday pro-am to spend more time with “Pops,” whose deteriorating situation has precluded him from eating anything other than popsicles for the last three weeks. Champ made the hour-long drive from Sacramento each of the first two days of the tournament, first getting to Silverado about an hour before his opening-round tee time.
“I think the whole week it just, there was nothing else on my mind. With everything going on, it just kind of blurred everything else,” Cameron Champ said. “Obviously golf, it’s my career and I love doing it. But it made me realize it’s not the most important thing, that there’s a lot more to life than just golf.”
No one would have faulted Champ for withdrawing, or playing his way to an emotional missed cut. But circumstances that might have sunk other players instead steeled the 24-year-old, who mixed eye-popping drives with deft touch en route to a second Tour victory that brought him to tears before he even retrieved his ball from the hole on 18.
Mack Champ’s ever-present lesson of “focus” rang true, all the way up until the final putt.
“He’s someone I want to be one day, someone I strive to be,” Champ said. “He’s kind of my father’s hero, but I think all together, if me and him sat down and talked, I think Grandpa’s our hero. That’s how I kind of look at it.”
Champ’s win last fall brought with it a deluge of scrutiny and expectation. He was quickly billed as the next can’t-miss prospect on Tour, inserted into TV promotions and features as an interracial wunderkind who might be the game’s next trailblazer. But then he did miss. Potential remained unfulfilled as he struggled through the latter half of his rookie year, going eight months between top-25 finishes.
“Cam has always had talent. I’m not worried about that. But he also has to keep growing as a young man,” said Jeff Champ. “It’s just a matter of his growth matching up to his talent, and when that happens it’s going to be very special. It’s already special right now.”
That growth was on full display this week in Napa, where Champ’s emotions were never far below the surface as he played his way into contention and ultimately the 54-hole lead. Known most for his prodigious length off the tee, Champ displayed a well-rounded skill set on a firm North Course, where he led the field in scrambling for the week. That included a trio of par saves early in his final round as his lead stretched to five shots and a chip-in par save on No. 11.
But with Adam Hadwin on the verge of tying the lead as Champ stood on the 18th tee, he needed to deliver once more to avert disaster. And so he leaned again on the words his grandfather instilled in him over the years, passing down lessons he learned while fighting racial prejudice in the heart of Texas in the 1950s to simply learn and play the game.
What followed was a microcosm of Champ’s ultra-high ceiling: a 369-yard drive that split the fairway and a delicate pitch from in front of the green to set up the win.
So it was that the three men, fathers and sons, were reunited once more on the 72nd green to celebrate a victory together. With time no longer his ally, Mack Champ – a Vietnam veteran who spent much of his life battling institutional adversity and the last 20 years teaching his grandson the game of a lifetime – sat up in his bed and listened in on a moment of triumph that bore his indelible fingerprints.
This one was for Pops.
“I’ll say this now. I really feel like this will be, no matter what, even if I never win another tournament again or I win however many,” Champ said. “This will definitely be the greatest moment of my golfing career.”