Northern Trust Open: William McGirt Toughened Up on the Mini-Tours

William McGirt surged to a 2-shot lead at the 54-hole mark of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. He shot 6-under, 65, and will play in the last group Sunday with George McNeill and Charlie Beljan who are both tied at 10-under.

McNeill is interesting because he’s coming back from a broken collarbone (golf cart accident) that kept him on the sidelines for three months and Beljan is interesting because he has always sort of been a “grip it and rip it” kind of player and he’s now learned discipline. For both of them it’s been a big step forward.

But my interest fell to McGirt because I have great empathy for underdogs. He’s a former mini-tour mongrel who had to go back to the mini-tours seven or eight years ago and has played about everywhere in every kind of tournament: 

Oh goodness, may run out of fingers and toes — E‑Golf Tour, Hooters Tour, some one‑day tours, there was All‑Star Tour in Jacksonville, Carolina Mountain Tour, Carolinas Pro Tour…

The PGA Tour moderator offered up, “William actually slept on my couch at one of those tours.”

The mini-tours are not a pretty place to be. It is about one thing and one thing only, learning what it takes to step over all of your fears, considerations, fatigue, financial worries and foibles. It’s figuring out how to play placidly with a thick skin at the highest level of the game, the PGA Tour.

And since you’re playing with a bunch of guys who are going through the same thing you are, you make a lot of friends. They are the only ones you can talk to who understand completely.

For guys that came through mini‑tours, I think we tend to appreciate things a lot more.  We could be playing for less than our own entry fee, full entry fee every week.  So, yeah, everything that’s out here, nothing’s taken for granted, I can assure you of that.

Out here, we have people that take days and weeks off work to help us, to volunteer to do stuff for us.  I try to say thank you as much as I can to those folks, because without all the volunteers, we would not be able to do what we do.

And when you are around mini‑tours for eight years and go through a bunch of heartaches at Q‑School, once you finally get here, you really have to appreciate it.

Guys like Jordan Spieth make the game look easy, but it’s not easy. Aside from building callouses on the mini-tour, there is the high-stakes world of Q-School where every single shot means so much:

My first time at Q‑School was 2004.  So 2007 and 2008, I think I missed finals by a shot, and lipped it out on the last hole both times.  So you walk away and you’re kind of wondering, you know, is it ever going to happen, and what do you have to do to make it happen?

And then 2009 at second stage, I’ll never forget this.  I was playing with Paul Stankowski the last two days, and I thought I was comfortably inside the number.  Hit what I thought was a great shot into the par 3, greens were really soft; it rained a bunch.  Spins back in the bunker and I’m sitting there going, oh, no, here we go again.

I walk in there, look at it, thinking I have no chance, end up holing it.  And I sprinted straight to 18 tee because I had a splitting headache.  And Stanko comes up and walks over and taps me on the back and goes, “Just take a deep breath.”

It was a collegial kindness that is routine on the PGA Tour. Everybody is trying to beat everybody else, but there is also an “in-the-club” camaraderie that causes players to lead with their hearts sometimes:

And it was something that really helped me a bunch.  I played a bunch of practice rounds with him my first two years on Tour whenever he was playing and somebody that I’ve been able to rely on a bunch.  He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.

Although he’s settled in on the PGA Tour continuing the curriculum, his 2007 E-Tour [playoff] victory was his last one.

I won some one‑day events, one or two one‑day events after that, but yeah, my last win of any consequence, I think it was 2007.

What he did with the $16,000 prize money gives us another look into the mini-tour world:

Paid off all the credit card bills.  I mean, when you’re on mini‑tours, you’re not making much, so I had accrued a little bit of debt.  Did that and my big splurge from that win was a brand new GPS.  It cost 400 bucks and I thought it was going to break me, but it was nice to splurge on something.

I got the weed whacker after that.  It was 2009.

And there is always the question somewhere in the back of your mind of when it’s time to go do something else. This, balanced against the fact that as distant as your dream sometimes feels, you know you have developed an incredible, tournament-tough skill set that very few people are capable of, a skill set that transfers to nothing else:

There were many times [I considered quitting], and when I went to Q‑School in 2009, I basically told my wife, I said, this is it, we are practically out of money. Yeah, I mean, for all intents and purposes, for doing what we’re doing, I was lucky I had a few people help me out here and there.  Thank goodness my parents supported me 100 percent of what I was trying to do.

Yeah, there were several times, and especially after the way I missed Q‑School in 2007 and 2008, it was just one of those things, you look back at it and you’re kind of like, I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen.

Finally, all the hard work and patience created a crack in the door:

And to finally get to finals, in 2009, [winning a Web.com tour card] it kind of was a little bit, took some of pressure off .  But my status was so bad, I missed getting in the first three or four events by one person and finally got in Bogotá. But I was late to get in, and went down there and finished third, so I was set the rest of the year and took advantage of it from there.

And here’s an example of what a mini-tour education can do for you, dealing with the PGA Tour crowds. You’re no longer playing golf in solitude:

I really didn’t have much trouble.  The first Nationwide event I played in 2010, I was in the last group Saturday and next to last group on Sunday.

And when we teed off on Saturday, I mean, there had to be 10,000 people lining the first hole.  I mean, it was crazy.  Literally we had the Federales park the people so we could get to the tee.  That was kind of my first taste of it and once I got out here, it’s the same thing.

So I kind of got used to it on the Nationwide Tour, and have been able to adjust pretty well out here.

On the mini-tours, you’re not flying first class. As a matter of fact, you’re not even flying coach. You’re driving almost everywhere:

There’s nothing like driving to Boston to play a Monday qualifier, missing the Monday qualifier and driving all the way back to Charlotte that night to tee it up in a tournament the next morning.  Did that a few times.

I had a Honda Passport when I started.  I think it had 14,000 miles on it when I got it and about 230,000 when it finally started to fall dead.  Then I bought a Honda Accord and put about 80,000 miles on it.  So, yeah, I was not scared to drive.

McGirt is an easy choice to cheer for on Sunday.

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