News & Opinion

In nod to Arnie, McGirt posts signature round in Masters debut

AUGUSTA, Ga. – There was only one moment during a wild and blustery Thursdaywhen William McGirt wasn’t calm and at ease. It happened on the first tee of his first Masters.

“When I heard, ‘Fore, please! William McGirt now driving,’ I almost shed a tear,” said the 37-year-old Wofford College alumnus. “I tried my best to prepare myself. I didn’t want to not be able to get the ball to sit on the tee or not be able to get the driver to sit still.”

After that, the short-hitting McGirt parred the first, birdied the second and breezed around the Augusta National Golf Club course, excuse the pun. He relied on his deft short game, shot 3-under 69 and made only one bogey on a day so tough that Fred Couples, a veteran of 32 Masters, said, “I’ve never seen it like this.”

McGirt is a late-bloomer who isn’t widely known. His score looked like the round of the day until Charley Hoffman miraculously racked up nine birdies and shot 65 in challenging conditions. Only 11 players in the 93-man field broke par.

McGirt is no surprise. He won last year’s Memorial Tournament, hosted by Jack Nicklaus, who gave him an added bit of confidence when they met Tuesday near the clubhouse and Nicklaus told him, “If you can win at my place, you can win here. Play smart. There are a lot of holes where you don’t have to hit it directly at pins to get close.”

McGirt took that advice to heart. He also made sure that he and his wife, Sarah, were on the first tee when Nicklaus and Gary Player, minus the late Arnold Palmer, acted as honorary starters even though McGirt’s tee time wasn’t until 11:07, more thanthree hours later.

“I’ve never been here to watch it in person,” he said. “With this being the first year without Mr. Palmer, I was not going to miss it.”

McGirt holds a memorable connection to Palmer, too. McGirt was on the putting green for the first time at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla., playing the event that Palmer hosted, and was about to stroke a putt when he felt a hand on his shoulder, turned and was surprised to see Palmer. 

“He said, I just signed something over there and yours was the only other signature I could read,” McGirt said, recalling the meeting. “I quickly said, I remember some old guy said if you’re going to take the time to sign, make it legible. He gave me a thumbs-up and a wink and was gone.”

The challenging conditions here Thursday were right up McGirt’s alley. He’s a solid ballstriker with a superlative short game that makes up for his lack of power off the tee.

“I was not upset to see it blowing,” he said. “I love it when it plays tough. I’m not the kind of player who’s going to get in a shootout. If it’s going to be 20 or 22 under par, then I’m playing for 15th.”

He might have gone bogey-free, he said, if his drive at the third hole hadn’t plugged in a fairway bunker. He had another one plug in the greenside bunker at the seventh hole but sank a 15-footer to save par. He got up and down for par on seven occasions.

McGirt grew up in Lumberton, N.C., and lives in Spartanburg, S.C., with his wife and two small children. He’s a kind of regional hero who was honored at halftime of a Wofford football game last fall for his Memorial victory. Finally playing in the Masters was an even bigger honor.

“This is a lifelong dream,” he said. “You don’t know if this moment will ever happen. I’m going to try to soak it all in and relish every moment.”

It’s only Thursday. He’s got a lot more to relish this week.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated andGolf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle