The quiet tour­ing pro com­fort­able in his role

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - SCOTT RADLEY

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.

CATHIE COWARD, THE HAMILTON SPEC­TA­TOR

Macken­zie Hughes with his wife, Jenna, at Dun­das Val­ley Tues­day.

CATHIE COWARD, THE HAMILTON SPEC­TA­TOR

Macken­zie Hughes shakes young golfer Dougie Basadur’s hand af­ter sign­ing a hat at Dun­das Val­ley Golf and Curl­ing Club on Tues­day morn­ing.

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