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Former Kent State star Mackenzie Hughes wins PGA Tour event in playoff

Staff and wire report Published: November 22, 2016 4:00 AM
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ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Mackenzie Hughes, a former Kent State star from Canada playing his rookie season on the PGA Tour, became just the second player in the illustrious history of the Golden Flashes golf program to earn a PGA Tour victory when he won a playoff early Monday morning to capture the RSM Classic.

Hughes drained an 18-foot par putt from off the 17th green at Sea Island, then watched the other three players in the playoff all miss from 10 feet or closer.

"I made the putt of my life right there," Hughes said.

Hughes calmed his nerves and came up clutch in the 42-degree chill, becoming the first PGA Tour rookie in 20 years to go wire-to-wire for his first victory.

The final day of a long year on the PGA Tour brought a most unlikely finish.

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The victory came in just the ninth PGA Tour start for Hughes, who opened the week ranked 287th in the world.

"Mackenzie has all of those championship characteristics that don't necessarily have anything to do with talent," said veteran KSU golf coach Herb Page.

"That's where he is miles ahead. Those characteristics used to be weaknesses for him, but now his resilience and toughness are massive strengths in his overall golf game."

Hughes had a chance to end it Sunday night until his 10-foot birdie putt in the dark on the 18th hole turned away.

The next morning, he was the only player who was never on the green at the par-3 17th until his ball was in the cup. Blayne Barber, Henrik Norlander and Camilo Villegas narrowly missed their par putts to extend the playoff.

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Hughes was watching from off the green, and the prospect of winning became more real with each putt that missed -- first Barber, then Norlander. And when Villegas missed his 7-footer, Hughes dropped his putter, turned his back on the green and knocked off his cap as he rubbed his head in disbelief.

"If I didn't make, I thought I was probably out," Hughes said.

"Before I hit it, the thought was, 'Just make them think about it.' Put this putt in first, and if you can be the first guy in, put the pressure back on them. And that's what happened."

The victory, worth $1.08 million and a three-year PGA Tour exemption, sends the 25-year-old Canadian to the Masters. One of his most vivid golf memories as a kid in Ontario was watching Mike Weir win the green jacket in 2003.

"He was texting me last night a little bit," Hughes said. "It's pretty cool to have a guy like that to lean on for advice."

Another guy Hughes has leaned on through the years is Page, who received a phone call he'll never forget early Monday afternoon.

"I got a great phone call at about 1 from Mackenzie Hughes. He called to thank me," said Page. "That call was so gratifying. That's what you coach for. We talked for 40 minutes. It just proves what a great young man he is, what a class act. I can't tell you how happy I am for him, and so proud."

Billy Horschel was eliminated from the five-man playoff on the first extra hole Sunday night when he narrowly missed a birdie putt, then shockingly missed a 2-foot putt. Hughes putts so well it was mildly surprising when he missed his 10-foot putt on the second playoff hole.

"It ate at me a little bit knowing that I had 10 feet to win it," he said. "But I came out here to try to clear my mind, tell myself that I have a one-in-four chance."

The odds looked worse when his 4-iron bounded over the green and down a steep slope. Making the pitch shot even more difficult is that the pin was 15 feet from the back edge, and the green ran quickly away from him. His pitch was a few feet from being perfect, but instead it stopped short of being on the green.

Norlander was in the front bunker, while Barber was left of the green and Villegas was just over the back. Barber and Villegas used putter for their second shots.

Hughes handled pressure all week long during his wire-to-wire victory, battling back from a triple bogey in round three with a late birdie barrage that kept him atop the leaderboard, then righting the ship in his final round after missing the green on each of his first four holes.

The last rookie to go wire-to-wire for his first win was Tim Herron at the 1996 Honda Classic. Hughes started his week with a 61, and led after every round until he was posing with tournament host Davis Love III with the trophy Monday morning.

Hughes, who closed with a 69 and finished at 17-under 265, capped a memorable fall season. He started by playing the final two rounds with Phil Mickelson and tying for 13th at the Safeway Open. Mickelson's caddie, Jim Mackay, said in a text message Saturday night, "I really like his moxie, he's got guts."

In his only week off this fall, Hughes and his longtime girlfriend from Kent State, Jenna, were married. They plan a honeymoon in the offseason, and now he gets to plan a schedule that includes Kapalua, Augusta National and the PGA Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives.

Hughes was a senior captain on the best team in KSU golf history, the 2011-12 squad that advanced to match play and finished fifth at the NCAA Championships. He was a four-time All-Mid-American Conference performer and two-time Academic All-American for the Flashes, but never earned All-American honors as a player.

"He told today on the phone, 'Coach I was never an All-American, but I kept working at it, kept getting better, kept plugging away. I believed in myself,'" said Page. "And he's only going to get better."

A native of Dundas, Ontario, Hughes became the first Canadian to win on the PGA Tour since 2014. His former teammate at Kent State and fellow Canadian Taylor Pendrith drove four hours Monday morning to be at the Sea Island Golf Club to witness Hughes' win.

"Mackenzie is such a quality guy and a great role model for players out there striving to do what he has just done, and certainly to his colleagues out there professionally who are Kent State alumni and to our team as it exists right now," said Page. "Our players here got out of the weight room not long after he won this morning, and they have to be saying this is possible for us."


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