Patience Pays Off For Mackenzie
By Ken Klavon, USGA
Bandon, Ore. – There is an innate intelligence that exudes something different.
Her parents? Who picks their parents when sports stars are propped higher on a pedestal than Mount St. Helens? That’s precisely the point. She is different than the rest. Meet Paige Mackenzie, one of the best female amateur golfers in the country who will be competing at the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club’s Witch Hollow Course Aug. 7-13.
Remember TV and radio personality Casey Kasem? He twice hosted radio’s ‘American Top 40’ and would always end the show with an axiom of sorts, signing out with “Remember to keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
The introspective 23-year-old Mackenzie from Yakima, Wash., is the exception in a sport where too many players become robotic or mechanical. It’s a never-ending conveyor belt of “fairways and greens” for them. Mackenzie learned early. When she and older brother Brock, 19 months apart, were born, their parents had them on the course as infants. Not to play mind you, but pushed along in carts while Hugh and Caren could still imbibe in one of their loves outside of their professions as pharmacists.
Mackenzie became like her parents, adoring the sport at a young age. She picked up clubs at age 3 and played in her first tournament at 7 - the Yakima City Championship – where she finished runner-up. (Sounds impressive but there were only two players. Can’t control what you can’t control, right?).
At 13, she broke 80 for the first time. Then she started feeling pressure. Pressure to improve, pressure to do better, pressure to be competitive. Mackenzie chose to attend the University of Washington after other big-time West Coast schools aggressively pursued. That’s where big brother Brock went, too. In 2003, both were the No. 1 ranked players on their respective golf teams.
That’s also the same year Mackenzie underwent a life-altering transformation. She had an ill-fated injury to thank. She ignored searing back pain until getting it checked out in January. Two bilateral stress fractures and a bulging disc later, her season was over.
“I read a lot. I read a lot of books, a lot of golf books,” said Mackenzie during the Curtis Cup Match last week at Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Ore. “Toward the end of it ….” her voiced trailed off, she was bouncing off walls.
It took her 10 months to swing a club again, unsure whether the non-invasive treatment would work. In the meantime, during that summer Brock was selected to play on the USA Walker Cup team that would compete at England’s Ganton Golf Club in September. Mackenzie decided to tag along. She watched Brock, living vicariously through his experiences, his teammates’ camaraderie and the pride they displayed in playing for their country. She told her parents when Brock was selected that she’d maybe one day like to represent the USA in the Curtis Cup Match.
After being there, she was convinced.
First, though, she wanted to know if her game had abandoned her during the long layoff. “My very first time I played golf was in England,” said Mackenzie. “I shot 68, which was really cool.”
Said dad Hugh: “She probably had more fun at Ganton than Brock did. She played golf for the first time in 10 months at Ganton and shot a couple under par.”
Mackenzie went back to the University of Washington, ranked as a top amateur by one golf publication. Later as a first-team All-America in 2005, Mackenzie had another reawakening. In the final round of the NCAA regionals, she had a four-putt that affected her team’s finish.
The agony gnawed at her to the point that she’d change her attitude toward the game right then and there. A multitude of other incidents led her to this decision. She wanted to play the game and have fun. It was just a game, after all, right?
“I’d be over a putt I’d feel good about and then if I missed it, I’d take it really hard,” said Mackenzie, strong with the putter and short-irons. “I was more intense then. If I missed a shot, I’d get upset. Now, I’m just happy to be out here.”
If there was any doubt her game hadn’t returned, the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open at Cherry Hills Country Club outside of Denver dispelled those thoughts, as she finished tied for 13th. That, coupled with a strong senior season at Washington and again playing in this year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Newport (R.I.) Country Club (14-over 156 to miss the cut), bolstered her Curtis Cup chances. Mackenzie replayed what she’d do if she were chosen. She wanted to be selected, but she also had visions of turning professional. She came to a conclusion after one day staring out a window during an internship with a financial company and wishing she were instead playing golf.
She consulted Washington head coach Mary Lou Muffler.
“You only get one opportunity to represent your country,” said Muffler of the conversation they had.
When Mackenzie was offered a place on the team, Muffler recalled telling her, “This is your reward for the year you sat out with your back injury.”
Last week at Pacific Dunes, Muffler helped fill out a burgeoning fan club who wore ‘Team Mackenzie Curtis Cup’ T-shirts. Muffler traveled eight hours from Seattle, as did other supporters from Yakima, Portland, Ore., and other regions along the West Coast.
“Right now I’m in denial that she has graduated,” said Muffler. “If we look at each other too long, we start to tear up.”
“Believe me,” said Mackenzie, “it’s been tough on both of us.”
Mackenzie didn’t disappoint, picking up a possible three of four points in the USA’s victory over Great Britain & Ireland. That also equaled the total Brock registered in the Walker Cup Match, but his side lost to GB&I, 12½-11½.
“I don’t think he knows, but I was paying attention. Are you kidding me?” said Mackenzie, laughing, about her sibling rivalry.
Now, she’ll head to her final event as an amateur with mixed emotions. On her way to Bandon Dunes, she stopped to play Pumpkin Ridge, amazed that “for such a new course, it plays like an old one.” Still, she caught herself, perhaps coming to peace that this chapter of her life will come to end when the Women’s Amateur concludes.
After that, she’ll turn pro and head to LPGA Qualifying School in the fall. It’s a new journey that she’s most definitely ready to explore.
“There is a little uncertainty looking forward,” said Mackenzie. “As a college graduate, you’re unsure of what’s out there, but I’m willing to try and find out.”
And when she does, she’ll be an even better person for it.
Ken Klavon is the USGA’s Web Editor. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.