The quiet touring pro comfortable in his role
As the awestruck kids made it to the front of the line to finally get an autograph and a photo, many were clearly unsure what to say or appeared a bit tongue-tied. So, he took the lead. “What’s your name?” Mackenzie Hughes asked one of the slightly older boys, looking him in the eye and extending his hand for a shake. “Derek,” the boy answered. “Derek, I’m Mackenzie.” The kid immediately broke into a wide grin. “I know.” Of course, he knew. They all knew. They’d come to Dundas Valley Golf and Curling Club specifically to see the local PGA Tour pro who’d learned how to play the game on the same fairways and greens they were now walking.
On a rare trip back to Canada for the Canadian Open that tees of at Glen Abbey on Thursday — the 26year-old is travelling the world most weeks and doesn’t get back here all that often — he stopped in at his old stomping ground to have the Par 3 course he wore out as a boy named after him. And then to give a clinic. In the process, getting a reminder of just how much his life has changed since earning his Tour card and winning the RSM Classic in November.
Because, it’s not just kids at his old course who know who he is now.
On Sunday he showed up unannounced — at least to the members — to play a round at the Hamilton Golf and Country Club. While carrying his bag from his car to the driving range in shorts and a cap, he was stopped several times by people who recognized him. On the range he was asked for an autograph and a photo a couple times. Same thing on the putting green.
“That’s fun,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me in any way.”
On Monday, while playing his first practice round at Glen Abbey, it happened again. Where once he probably could’ve walked the fairway screaming his name into a megaphone and many folks would have had to refer to their lineup card to figure out who the heck he was, they now know who he is and call him by name. Even the marshals greet him personally, these days. This, for the record, is new. “It’s definitely a different feel from when I played as an amateur in 2012 or as a pro in 2013,” he says. “It’s a much different feeling.”
In short, he was just another good player before. Now he’s a celebrity and one of the great Canadian hopes at a national event that hasn’t had a homegrown champion since 1954.
As such, demands on him are growing. His week at home is jammed with sponsors events and dinners and meet-and-greets and more. Still, during a couple hours at Dundas Valley on Tuesday morning, he took time to answer questions from the kids who listened in rapt attention. After all, he remembers being one of them once upon a time, he says. Back then he would have loved to have been able to pick the brain of a pro.
“How do you deal with nerves?” one asked.
Embrace them since everyone else is nervous, too, he answered.
“What’s your favourite thing about golf ?” asked another.
Every day is a different day and a different challenge, he responded. You can be struggling one day and playing great the next.
But, it was a question about which was his favourite club to hit that spawned the answer of the day.
“The putter,” Hughes says. “And I have 1.08 million reasons why.”
That’s how much he won for draining an 18-foot putt from the fringe in a playoff to win the RSM Classic back in November. It was the kind of response that might have sounded arrogant if it came from someone cocky but from a guy as quiet as Hughes, it carried a lighthearted charm.
Hughes says he doesn’t play to be famous but it can have its advantages, especially when he’s around young players.
“More than anything, it’s fun because I can have an impact,” he says. “That’s the greatest part of so-called notoriety or being famous is if I can have that little bit of impact on somebody or help someone get into the game that wasn’t going to play before. That’s what it’s all about.”
As he got up from his chair time and again to pose for pictures with the wide-eyed kids, he couldn’t help but remember when he was in their shoes. Back in 2003 when the Canadian Open was held in Hamilton, he got to spend a few minutes with Bob Estes. He was the first PGA Tour pro he’d ever met.
A picture of a diminutive 12year-old Hughes standing with the four-time Tour winner is a favourite of his. Fourteen years later, he’s now standing in Estes’ spot in that photo and a new generation of kids is where he was. Dreaming they could be like him someday. “Yeah,” Hughes says. “I’m him.” That, he says, is completely surreal.
Mackenzie Hughes with his wife, Jenna, at Dundas Valley Tuesday.
Mackenzie Hughes shakes young golfer Dougie Basadur’s hand after signing a hat at Dundas Valley Golf and Curling Club on Tuesday morning.