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Willie Mack III lived in his car for over a year. Now he’s living his dream at the US Open

<i>Mike Mulholland/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>It's been a long climb to reach the top for Mack
Mike Mulholland/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
It's been a long climb to reach the top for Mack

By Jack Bantock, CNN

(CNN) — For even the most talented golfers, it’s a long road to the US Open. Willie Mack III knows that better than anyone – he’s slept on several of them.

The Michigan-born 35-year-old made an impressive start on his major debut at the 124th edition of his national open on Thursday, outperforming some of the game’s biggest names amid supremely challenging conditions at Pinehurst’s No.2 course in North Carolina.

A one-over par 71 matched the best efforts of world No.1 and overwhelming tournament favorite Scottie Scheffler, while trumping the opening scores carded by an array of other stars, from defending winner Wyndham Clark to multiple major champion Jordan Spieth and Mack’s very own idol, Tiger Woods.

Yet just over a decade ago, as Woods eased ever closer to the all-time PGA Tour win record, Mack was easing himself into his Ford Mustang to settle down for the night.

While 15-time major winner Woods was granted a special exemption – the first of his career – to tee it up this week, Mack has taken a far more winding path to Pinehurst.

The abridged version is that he stamped his ticket by edging through a qualifying playoff in Florida last week, but that does little to capture all the contours of an arduous journey.

Born in Flint, Mack scooped a host of junior titles in his home city before turning heads with a decorated college career that saw him clinch 11 individual titles at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

In 2011, he became the first Black player to win the Michigan Amateur Championship.

In a 2021 interview with Michigan-based media group MLive, Mack said he had experienced racial prejudice during his time in youth golf.

“Growing up, going to some courses … you get looks or just don’t get treated the same way,” he said.

“But I think that’s just life. You have to deal with it, keep your head on straight and keep moving.”

‘I just thought it was embarassing’

Mack turned professional a few months after that triumph, throwing himself into regional circuits like the Florida Professional Golf Tour, as well as the Advocates Professional Golf Association (APGA) Tour, launched to promote diversity in the sport.

The first year went well, but Mack soon felt the financial strain of funding his own way around the country to a myriad of mini-tours – more than 30 and counting, he estimated to earlier this week.

By 2012, he was sleeping on the sofas of friends or – unbeknownst to his mother – in his own car. For more than year and a half, the latter setup would see Mack park up at tournaments well before tee off time to take a shower and avoid being noticed, he said.

“At the time, I just thought it was embarrassing,” Mack told

“But that’s all I had to try and get by. I’m sure there’s people that people don’t know what they’re going through and doing things you’d never expect …

“I would actually practice more because I just didn’t want to get back in the car. I would go to the mall a lot and just walk around, things to not be in the car. And then play a tournament and do it all again tomorrow.”

Repeated attempts to make it onto the PGA Tour through qualifying school fell short, but a breakthrough arrived in 2018 when Mack battled his way onto the PGA Tour Latinoamerica.

He played only two events – making just $766 in total – but it would mark the start of increasingly regular outings on the game’s most prestigious circuits. Last year, he played 20 tournaments on the Korn Ferry Tour – the PGA Tour’s developmental track – earning just over $45,000 in prize money in the process.

Ahead of this week, Mack has played seven PGA Tour events, his best performance a tied-64th finish at the 2021 John Deere Classic.

‘You just gotta keep fighting’

Yet heading into this month, a major appearance had remained agonizingly elusive.

It had not been for the want of trying, with Mack agonizingly missing out on a US Open field spot a few years ago by losing in a playoff. Fast-forward to The Bear’s Club in Orlando on June 3, and the journeyman golfer found himself in the same position once again.

Dubbed ‘golf’s longest day,’ the final round of US Open qualifying sees amateurs and professionals alike embark on a grueling 36-hole marathon to clinch the final few starting places at the major.

Having battled through local qualifying in April, Mack finished in a three-way tie for the fifth and final spot available to the 73 hopefuls at Bear’s Club. With both his counterparts bogeying in succession, back-to-back pars were enough for Mack to exorcise his playoff demons and stamp his ticket to Pinehurst.

“You just gotta keep fighting. My Dad always told me never to give up and I always keep that in the back of my mind,” Mack told NBC Sports after his triumph.

“To be able to do it today is remarkable. I can’t believe it actually happened,” he added.

Among the first groups to tee off Thursday, Mack’s name floated near the top of the leaderboard for some time as the world No. 1351 raced out of the blocks with two birdies across his first six holes.

He was two-under as he geared up for the final four holes, a score that would have ultimately put him within just three shots of round one leaders Rory McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay, only for three late bogeys to bump him above par.

Even so, Mack put up a showing the majority of the 156-player would have happily taken as a firm and fast No. 2 course chewed up many of the game’s elite.

“I wasn’t as nervous as I probably was before playing in some PGA Tour events,” Mack told reporters after his round.

“Playing full season last year, I guess it got me ready for these type of situations. It’s still the US Open, so you got to focus, put your head down and hit some great shots.”

Among the final groups to start their second round at 2:42 p.m. ET (7:42 p.m. BST) on Friday, Flint is well-positioned to make the cut and pen a major weekend chapter in the long story of his career.

“It’s a special week for me,” he added.

“Everything happens for a reason. I think this is my time to play well.”

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