In the fading light last Sunday evening, Mackenzie Hughes could have been forgiven for thinking his chance at a first PGA Tour title had disappeared from view.
On the second playoff hole of the RSM Classic in St. Simons Island, Ga., the PGA Tour rookie from Dundas, Ont., slid his birdie attempt just wide of the cup on the par-four 18th hole, prolonging the playoff. The 25-year-old, who turns 26 on Wednesday, had to wait until Monday morning, though, to rectify the situation, as it was too dark to continue.
He didn't take long the next day, sinking a 15-foot putt on the par-three 17th hole to clinch the five-man playoff, a first PGA Tour title in just his ninth event, a two-year tour card and more than $1-million (U.S.) in winnings. As a result, Hughes will also be taking his first trip to Augusta National Golf Club as a Masters competitor next spring.
With all that on the line, it would have been easy to become overwhelmed by the situation, but Hughes chose not to dwell on what could have been, instead focusing on what still lay ahead, particularly as the five-man playoff had been reduced to four after Billy Horschel had been eliminated on the first extra hole.
"I tried to look at it like, I've got this great opportunity in front of me tomorrow morning," he said Tuesday, recalling his thoughts from Sunday evening. "I've got a one-in-four chance to win a PGA Tour event, and if I was given those odds before the tournament started I would have been first in line waiting for that opportunity."
That he got to putt first on Monday morning helped. By sinking his, the pressure was firmly on the other three, even though they all had shorter putts to make.
"He didn't know that he was going to win, but he knew there were going to be some guys with a lot more pressure putting than he had," said Derek Ingram, coach of the Canadian men's national amateur team, who has worked with Hughes since he joined the program as a teenager. Though his time with Hughes isn't quite as regular since the youngster turned pro, the two still speak after every round.
Hughes, who has also worked with instructor Scott Cowx of Hamilton Golf and Country Club for a decade, said that although he didn't sleep much over the past couple of days of the tournament, he benefited greatly from having his new wife, Jenna, and mother with him. He was able to tune out golf after his rounds with a glass of wine and by watching reruns of Friends from Season One onward.
"It was a way to disconnect, have a laugh and enjoy being with my wife and my mom and that seemed to relax me at night," he said, adding that he feels a sense of belonging on the PGA Tour now, a feeling that he relates back to a fifth-place finish at the LECOM Health Challenge on the second-tier Web.com Tour this year.
Ingram added that though his protégé was "pretty pissed off" about missing the birdie putt to win on Sunday, he had to refocus on what he would need to do to win on Monday, in a sudden-death playoff that could have extended indefinitely.
That had been the case last Saturday, too, where despite leading through the first 46 holes, Hughes carded a triple-bogey 7 on the 11th hole to fall back into the chase pack. Ingram said that Hughes had initially decided to go with a 3-wood off the tee, but changed his mind at the last minute to hit driver. It had looked to be a costly decision at the time.
"He's more disappointed with the course management area and that indecision on the tee on that tee ball that got him into trouble, and then clearly I think it just snowballed a little bit," Ingram said. "He made a poor decision on the second shot [after his tee shot buried in a sand dune] and that led to the triple."
However, years of mental training with the Canadian amateur squad paid off, in addition to work with a sports psychologist, as Hughes birdied three of the next five holes to retake the lead. That work included holding high standards for himself in practice, as well as making his training sessions as difficult as possible by practising in less-than-ideal conditions.
"All these little things to make yourself a little tougher and hold yourself to just an extremely high standard," Ingram said.
Playing the final two rounds with Phil Mickelson at the Safeway Open last month also helped Hughes – who finished in a tie for 13th place there – get used to seeing how a five-time major champion could handle the crowds and the level of expectation.
"The crowds were huge," Ingram said. "He said to me after, 'I don't think I'll ever be nervous playing another PGA Tour event.'"
To help handle those expectations, not least from himself, Hughes and Ingram have talked about how to deal with pressure situations, moments that not everyone is fortunate enough to enjoy.
"He has fun with it and he embraces it and if you notice he'll smile to himself and just be thankful for the opportunity," Ingram says. "We talk about it as having the privilege of being under pressure and you earn that with all those long hours of practice."
Those long hours culminated in a first PGA Tour title for Hughes, one that given the way he won it, will stand him in good stead for the rest of his career in golf's most competitive tour.
"To find a way to deal with that adversity and all that attention, I think I just gained 10 times the amount of experience of a regular PGA Tour event, just in one week just because of all the stuff I had to go through and deal with," Hughes added.