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William McGirt has a winning personality, and now he needs a win

Unheralded player makes eight birdies in a 65 that gives him a two-stroke lead at Riviera. But there's more to his story.

February 15, 2014|Bill Dwyre
  • William McGirt leads the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club by two strokes.
William McGirt leads the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club by… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

We are going to tuck away the stern, objective journalistic approach for a day and suggest you root.

That means you, golf fans. Or you, general sports fans — anybody with a TV that gets the Golf Channel and CBS. Click it on Sunday and root.

Better yet, come on out to Riviera Country Club and walk alongside one stumpy little guy, whose curly hair flows out from under his cap like he's a Rory McIlroy impersonator and whose putter, at the moment, is also impersonating McIlroy in his good days.

You can become a McGirt Marcher. Thinks of it as kind of a poor man's Arnie's Army.

You will be following along in support of one of the better rags-to-riches stories in sports, helping crown William McGirt, whose his pro golf career has been mostly the bush leagues, a winner on the PGA Tour.

No offense to the other players, but McGirt's story is so compelling that it's difficult not to pump your fist over every birdie.

That meant a lot of fist-pumping Saturday.

McGirt, 34, from Boiling Springs, S.C., population 8,219, made eight of them in the third round of the Northern Trust Open. That allowed him to add a six-under-par 65 to his previous 69-67 and gave him a 12-under score that led the tournament by two shots.

The hot run also made it possible for McGirt to get extended time to tell his story to the media. Some highlights:

—He has never held a 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event. His last pro victory was in 2007 on the Tarheels Tour.

He was asked how many mini-tours he played on and said, "Oh, goodness, I may run out of fingers and toes."

—He once had two holes in one in a single round. It was at a charity event in Greenville, S.C., and he played at the request of a friend. The prize on the first hole was a Bose surround sound system. On the second, it was an Infiniti G37.

McGirt got neither.

"We get done and my friend comes up to me and says we have a problem," McGirt said.

Charity golf events typically buy insurance on giveaways such as a car on a hole in one. This tournament hadn't bought the insurance.

"No car, no surround-sound system. Didn't get any of it," McGirt said. "But he gave me this nice weed whacker; it's a golf club weed whacker. It's plastic. I'm like, this is awesome .... Still have it in my garage."

—When he was still in golf's minor leagues — think Class D ball — he would do things such as drive to Boston to play in a qualifier, then when he missed, drive back to Charlotte, N.C., to tee it up in an event the next morning.

"Did that a few times," he said. "It was like 12-14 hours. I have tried to forget that."

He said, in those days, he drove a Honda Passport and put 216,000 miles on it.

—Two second-place finishes in recent years at the RBC Canadian Open have helped sustain his career. In the first one, in 2012, when he missed getting into a playoff by one shot, he said he made the mistake of not looking at the scoreboard at all during his round.

"I'm in the PGA that year the next week at Kiawah [his only appearance in a major to date, and he missed the cut] and Monday morning, I'm on the putting green," he said. "Joe LaCava [Tiger Woods' caddie] walks over and says great playing in Canada. We were kind of talking about it [not looking at the scoreboard]. Tiger was probably 30 feet away. He looks up, I think he was in mid-stroke."

McGirt said Woods walked over in disbelief that he hadn't even peeked at the scoreboard, and he said he told Woods, "Dude, it was my first time in that situation."

McGirt said he looked at the scoreboard the next year in Canada and probably will look at it Sunday.

"I'd rather put my head down and sprint through the finish line," he said, "and look up at the end."

—He missed qualifying for the finals in Q-School twice by one shot, both times on putts that lipped out.

In 2009, he was in the second stage of Q-School and in good shape to advance going into the 17th hole.

"I'll never forget this," he said "I hit what I thought was a great shot into the par three. But it spins back into the bunker and I'm thinking, oh, no, here we go again.

"Thinking I have no chance, I end up holing it."

McGirt had told his wife that that Q-School was his their last chance, that they were out of money.

Now, they are on the big boys' tour, traveling on the West Coast swing as a family with a 13-month old son.

"When we left to go to Hawaii, he wasn't walking," McGirt said. "When we got to Phoenix [a month later] he decided it was time to start walking. It was a lot easier when he couldn't walk."

Sunday, it will be McGirt doing the walking, along the storied fairways of a legendary golf course. Winning would put him in the same book as Palmer, Hogan, Snead, Byron Nelson, Tom Watson, Fred Couples.

Yes, the likelihood is that Sunday's stage will be too big, that the pressure in the cooker will be too intense.

But stories like McGirt's come along so rarely. It's orphaned homeless child grows up and takes over General Motors; 5-foot-6 reserve from North Dakota wins NBA title with last-second three-pointer; nun becomes pope…

So why not? Root.

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