Late Sunday at the BMW Championship, two of golf’s heavyweights exchanged blows worthy of a title fight.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson dropped a 35-foot twister to join second-ranked Jon Rahm in a playoff, where Rahm, on the first playoff hole, nailed a 66-foot bomb of his own for the victory.
About 15 minutes before those highlight-reel putts, Canadian Mackenzie Hughes had a little five-footer; a putt he’s made hundreds of thousands of times.
But at no point has such a small putt meant so much in Hughes’ career.
“I got up to that putt and I saw a good spot almost right away and I had a good beat on the read so I felt pretty confident in that,” Hughes said, “but the biggest thing is that you either get everything or you don’t. You either get East Lake, the Masters invite, Tournament of Champions, or you don’t get it.
“Obviously a big putt, results-wise, but you’re trying to detach yourself from that and focus on making a good stroke and a good putt.”
Hughes made the putt.
There was a small crowd of volunteers and media types around the 18th green as whispers got louder of what the putt meant. A miss and a bogey would mean Hughes would have finished 32nd in the FedExCup standings, and only the top-30 get into the Tour Championship this week at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.
Instead, the Dundas, Ont., native moved to 28th spot and got into the longtime season-ending tournament. An appearance at the Tour Championship also means a bunch of big opportunities for the following season.
Since there were so many events cancelled, Hughes earned a spot in the Sentry Tournament of Champions, despite not winning on the PGA Tour since 2016. The putt also means he gets into the Masters, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship, along with the WGC-Mexico.
All of this after Hughes began the season by missing nine cuts in his first 11 events.
Hughes finally broke out of his early-season slump with a runner-up finish at The Honda Classic in early March. That was the last four-round event before the COVID-19 break. He missed the cut at the first tournament back, but has gone 8-for-8 since, including four top-15 finishes and a brush with history when he had a chance for a 59 at the Travelers Championship.
So what happened? It seems as though Hughes’ success is the culmination of sweeping changes in 2020 along with a renewed sense of confidence.
This year Hughes began working with a new caddie, Jace Walker, a new coach, and he and his wife Jenna are expecting their second child – another son – in November.
“I would say over the last few months I noticed more of a relaxed side of him on the course,” said Jenna via direct message on Twitter. “Off the course he’s put in many hours practicing as well as changing his workout routine. Throughout quarantine we focused on eating pretty healthy and he worked on gaining a little weight. Adding a new addition to our family soon may also be a little motivation!”
“His confidence level has slowly risen,” added Walker, who played on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada from 2010 to 2015 and whom Hughes said has a very high golf IQ. “He’s just played such good golf and he does it on the hardest golf courses. So much of that good play is mental, because to consistently play well on the tough courses is not just by chance.”
Indeed, Hughes’ runner-up result at the Honda Classic came on one of the traditionally hardest courses on the PGA Tour, PGA National, while this past week’s BMW Championship at Olympia Fields saw only five golfers finish under par.
Now Hughes gets to look ahead to some of the biggest events in golf, including this week at East Lake. Still, he said these kinds of big events are what he feels he’s made for.
Hughes is now 65th in the Official World Golf Ranking and is the highest-ranked Canadian male. He’s just clipped Adam Hadwin (66th) while fellow Kent State University alum Corey Conners is 70th and 2020 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am winner Nick Taylor is 113th.
“I feel like this is more of a reflection of who I am than the guy who started the year,” Hughes said.
In order to win this week at East Lake, he’ll have to do it in spectacular fashion. For the second year in a row the PGA Tour has decided to stagger the starting positions of each golfer on the FedExCup standings so Johnson, who leads the way, will start the week at 10-under par. Hughes will be at even par.
Johnson, Rahm, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and more are the kinds of players Hughes will need to start beating if he wants to lift a trophy at one of the big tournaments he’s going to play in 2021.
But Hughes is ready.
He laughs at the state of his playoff beard – “It’s an attempt at a beard” – but not the state of his game. A little putt Sunday was a big deal come Monday. And now he gets to try to keep his good play going for one more week this season.
“I don’t think that, going up against these guys… I don’t feel like I’m inferior,” he said. “I definitely feel like when I’m out there and when I play well and do what I’m supposed to do I can contend and have a chance to win. I’ve always felt like that. I can just do that a little more lately. That’s a testament to being diligent on the mental side of things and keeping that perspective and keeping a good attitude.”
The Tour Championship begins on a special day, Friday, Sept. 4, and will wrap up on Labour Day.