Ron Cook: Will MacKenzie does it his way

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It's hard to say what pleased Will MacKenzie more yesterday at the Memorial, putting himself in position to have a puncher's chance of winning today and getting an automatic spot in the U.S. Open at Oakmont next week or being acknowledged by one Eldrick T. Woods in the clubhouse during the long rain delay.

That 7-under 65 that left him four shots behind third-round leader Rod Pampling?

Or a simple, "What's up, Will?"

Tough call.

"Any time I get to hang out near Tiger Woods, it makes me pretty happy," MacKenzie said. "He just puts off a real nice vibe. He is the man. He sort of like flows, like water, like breeze."

No, MacKenzie isn't your typical professional golfer.

I mean, it has probably been a while since Phil Mickelson said Woods gives off a "real nice vibe."

But it's not just a serious case of hero worship that separates MacKenzie from the pack. There are much better players on tour, but it's safe to say none has lived a more fascinating life. Although he was a golfing prodigy in North Carolina, he took a rather unconventional path to the Memorial at Muirfield Village Golf Club, the paradise that Jack Nicklaus created in northwest Columbus.

"I quit golf when I was 14 in 1988 because I lost a big tournament and it didn't sit very well with me," MacKenzie said.

The Ben Hogan Junior Boys Championship.

"I missed short putts on 17 and 18 and then missed another short one in the playoff."

He choked.

"I decided to try other things."

Boy, did he.

For more than a decade.

Rock climbing, kayaking and snowboarding in Montana, where he lived in a van for five years. Surfing for three months in Costa Rica. Doing who knows what in Alaska ???

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, reports MacKenzie lived in a cave in Alaska, suffered frostbite and once went 30 days without showering.

That's probably more information than you want, but you get the idea this is a strange bird.

MacKenzie, 32, said he decided to go back to golf after watching the late Payne Stewart win the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, not far from where MacKenzie grew up in Greenville, N.C. A contributing factor might have been his finances. How far can a guy go selling Christmas trees and hammocks?

Although MacKenzie bailed on golf, his impressive skills didn't bail on him. He turned pro in 2000 and did well on the Golden Bear tour, the Hooters tour, the Nationwide and Canadian tours. He made it to the big leagues in '05 and won the '06 Reno-Tahoe Open in August, his only top 10 finish of the year. He finished in a tie for fourth this year at the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii.

A second win today would get MacKenzie that jewel of an exemption to Oakmont. "It'll be fantastic if I get in. I want to play in a major championship. I've never played in a major championship before."

The problem is no one, including MacKenzie, knows who's going to show up for the final round this morning. He probably was only exaggerating a little bit when he said he's not sure what swing he will use, or what putting stroke. At times, he has tried to swing like Steve Elkington. "My Willy Mackington swing," he called it. Other times, he has tried to pattern himself after the great Woods. Hasn't everyone? At this tournament, he's pretending to be Stuart Appleby.

The Appleby is good for MacKenzie. So is Aaron Baddeley's putting stroke, "which I call," MacKenzie said, giggling. "I copy his every move." Something worked for him yesterday. The man had seven birdies -- five on the back nine -- on his way to matching Stewart Cink for the day's low round.

Now, it's Sunday at a big event and MacKenzie is high on the leader board. The odds are against him; he not only has to make up those four strokes on Pampling, he has to catch Adam Scott and Sean O'Hair, who have him by a stroke. Even if MacKenzie comes up short, he'll be a decent bet to earn one of the 24 U.S. Open spots that will be up for grabs at a 36-hole sectional qualifier at two courses in the Columbus area tomorrow. It's nice to think he'll make it to Oakmont one way or the other. He'll liven up the place.

No matter what, MacKenzie almost certainly will walk away from here with a career achievement.

Barring a complete collapse, like the one when he was 14, he's going to beat Woods, who trails him by seven shots.

"Ah, he'll probably shoot 58 tomorrow," MacKenzie said, smirking.

Hey, anything can happen in the game of golf.

Woods has proved that, time and again.

So has MacKenzie, in his own unique way.


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