News & Opinion

McGirt, Hughes emerge amid Players’ star power

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Television likes sexy. The PGA Tour likes sexy. The print media love sexy.

The opening round of The Players Championship on Thursday was the opposite of sexy. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson had to rally for 71. Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth shot 73s. Jason Day bogeyed three of his last four for 70. Adam Scott finished double-double for 70. Masters champion Sergio Garcia was on the ropes until he aced the famed par-3 17th hole, the sexy highlight you will see a hundred times the rest of this week.

By sundown, your first-round leaders were the very unsexy William McGirt and MacKenzie Hughes, with 5-under 67s. 

Good luck finding big pieces on either one in today’s media cauldron. To save you time Googling, here they are in a sentence each:

·      McGirt is a curly-haired 37-year-old journeyman who got his first victory at the Memorial Tournament last year.

·      Hughes, a 26-year-old Canadian from Hamilton who played college golf at Kent State, quietly won the year-end RSM Classic and is playing his first Players.

McGirt isn’t a big hitter, but he somehow eagled both par 5s on the back nine. At the 11th, he said, “I buried a 50-foot windmill putt.” He spent Tuesday in Dublin, Ohio, where it was media day for this year’s Memorial. Tournament director Dan Sullivan called McGirt to say he would understand if the defending champion couldn’t be there. 

“I said, Dan, I waited 38 years for this, I’m not missing it,” McGirt said.

If McGirt was an unlikely contender at April’s Masters, he is an equally unlikely – or unsexy, if you must – contender at the Stadium Course. “I feel like this is one of those places that every time I play, it only frustrated me more,” McGirt said. “I don’t need to play a practice round out here. I know what’s going to happen.”

He’s still an underdog. He grew up in little Fairmont, N.C., played golf at Wofford College and still lives near Spartanburg, S.C., with his wife and two children. His dogged work on his short game has paid off in the past two years. At some point, the public may eventually quit being surprised when he’s on the leaderboard.

Hughes has an even lower public profile with American golf fans. He won a Web.com event last year, then held on at the RSM Classic at Sea Island, Ga., an event hosted by famed local resident Davis Love III.

It’s been a slow start to the 2017 portion of the schedule for Hughes. After a 10th-place finish at Pebble Beach, he hasn’t been sharp. He missed two straight cuts before placing 31st at Wells Fargo last week.

“I knew my game was trending,” said Hughes, who played bogey-free Thursday. “I had some good results last week. It was a big step in the right direction. I was getting a little frustrated and down on myself. I just tried to be more patient, and it paid off. Sometime, I forget that it’s still my first. I’m thinking I should be playing well because I’m here.”

Just because McGirt and Hughes aren’t glamour names doesn’t mean they won’t hold up. Hughes was the first rookie in 20 years to lead wire-to-wire to earn his first PGA Tour victory last fall. He holed an 18-foot par putt from off the green that he later called “the putt of my life” to win a five-man playoff. 

His most serious brush with an opening-round bogey may have come at 18, where he played his second shot with a 6-iron through a gap in the trees right of the fairway. It came off perfectly and finished on the green. He lagged a 31-foot birdie putt close and made par. 

“Eighteen was stress-free,” he said jokingly. “No, just kidding. I was fortunate to have a little bit of a window. It was big enough.”

It was a pretty good shot. It was almost even sexy.

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