Mackenzie Hughes notches first PGA Tour title

By Dave Kaplan

Clutch.

That is how I would describe the scrappy Canadian Mackenzie Hughes’ first PGA Tour win this past Monday morning at the RSM Classic.

The weather on Sea Island had dropped nearly 20 degrees Fahrenheit from the evening before, and was just above freezing when the four-man playoff resumed at 8AM on the third playoff hole, a 189-yard par 3.

Incredibly, none of the four players remaining in the playoff hit the green with their tee shot. Camilo Villegas came the closest, nearly hitting a perfect shot to the back flag location only to watch his ball bounce firmly and trickle off the back of the putting surface. Blayne Barber went next and pulled his 5-iron over the back left of the green near a camera operator. Hughes followed suit by blasting his 5-iron over the flag. With the door wide-open, Swedish sophomore Henrik Norlander selected a 6-iron and ended up in a bunker woefully short of the green.

No one in the group really took advantage of the situation with their second shots, leaving all four players with some work to do for their pars. Remarkably, Hughes’ situation was the direst of the four. Having left his chip just short of the green, he would need to drain a slick downhill putt if he had any hopes of staying alive — or so it seemed! Hughes embraced the moment and made his putt centre cup, letting out a gigantic Tiger-like fist pump in the process.

With the pressure now squarely on his competitors, Barber, Norlander and Villegas all missed their par putts one after the other. As a result, Hughes became the 13th Canadian to win on the PGA Tour and the first since Nick Taylor won at the Sanderson Farms Championship in late 2014. Coincidentally, Taylor also won his first career event in just his fourth start as a rookie! To boot, Hughes’s victory marked the first time in 20 years that a rookie has gone wire-to-wire for his first victory on the PGA Tour and it only took him nine starts to do! I don’t want to draw too many comparisons here but a performance like that can only be properly identified as Tiger-esque!

hughes-wins-rsm-classic-3

The two-time Canadian Amateur winner was spectacular all week long, beginning on Thursday when he made nine birdies on his unblemished scorecard to open with a 61. Hughes followed that stellar round with a 67 on Friday and remained bogey-free for the week until the 11th hole on Saturday when the Kent State graduate made a triple bogey. However, Hughes promptly righted the ship with birdies on 13, 15 and 16 and held onto the lead after 54-holes. On Sunday, Hughes continued to putt well, but had little to show for his efforts, as his ball repeatedly squeaked by the edges of nearly every cup down the stretch. That was especially the case on the second playoff hole on Sunday evening, where the 25-year-old could have won it all by converting a short birdie putt in the dark, just moments before play was suspended, had he not burned another edge.

Hughes admitted to reporters that he dwelled on the putt throughout the night, but was not too hard on himself because of the conditions. “I watched the replay a few times and I still can’t believe that it broke left at the end,” Hughes said after the win. “But I didn’t want to put to much thought into it because it was almost black, I couldn’t see much, and I hit a pretty good putt.”

In retrospect, it is probably a good thing that Hughes did not spend too much time questioning his putting stroke on Sunday night because he certainly needed it on Monday morning!

Hughes got married last month and turns 26 on Wednesday. I can’t think of a better honeymoon/birthday gift that he could have received than a $1.08 million cheque, a 2-year PGA Tour exemption, and automatic entrances into next year’s Masters, Players Championship and Tournament of Champions.

Moreover, it is extremely exciting for Canadians to be able to call this exciting and promising rookie one of our own. Since Mike Weir’s successful 2003 season, Canadian golf fans have not had an opportunity to claim an international golf superstar on the men’s circuit — I’m not forgetting about you, Brooke! Admittedly it is too early, and frankly unfair, to be putting this type of expectation on the young man after just one big win.

Nonetheless, Hughes has already shown some resilience and grit to go along with his all-around world-class skill set. He may bomb the ball like so many kids on the circuit do these days, but his smooth tempo, pin-point precision, and unique short game are what set him apart from other prospects his age. His short game, specifically, complete with low and soft pitch shots and minimal wrist hinge during his chips, comes off as wise beyond his years — evidence of which we are already seeing in the statistics. After just five events in 2016-17, the Canadian already ranks 14th on tour in strokes gained with the putter and 1st in both scrambling from the fringe and from inside of 10 feet, two areas from where he is yet to miss. If Hughes is to become an elite player on the tour, it will be by outperforming the rest of the field in these categories.

And I have no doubt that he will.

Dave Kaplan is a Toronto-based freelance writer and golf fanatic who is sneaky long off the tee. He’s on a crusade to inject a youthful perspective into golf media, especially the broadcast booth. Follow him on Twitter @davykap

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