At the end of regulation on Sunday afternoon at The Memorial, there were two players left standing at 15-under, Will McGirt and Jon Curran, who are relative unknowns to the average fan and both searching for their first victory on the PGA Tour. Right behind them were two big-hitting stars, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, but they were unable to catch the two players who had taken very different paths than they took en route to the big leagues.
Maybe a DJ-Rory playoff would have been more appealing to the masses, but seriously, who doesn’t love a pair of Cinderella stories facing off in extra holes at Muirfield Village, the course that tournament host Jack Nicklaus built? (I’m a sucker for the underdog, though.)
McGirt, who hails from North Carolina, turned pro after college in 2004. His journey to the PGA Tour wasn’t exactly easy or glamorous. He did it the hard way, grinding it out on the mini tours, but he never quit — he simply kept his head down and worked hard to eventually achieve what he wasn’t sure would ever happen.
“It’s just been years and years of practice and getting your nose bloodied and learning from it,” said the 36-year-old journeyman.
His last win was the 2007 Carrabus Classic on the Tarheels Tour. He thought he “hit it big” when he won the first-prize check of $16,000, which was considered really good money at that level.
“It seems like it was yesterday, but it (also) seems like it’s been a lifetime ago,” said McGirt.
Well, yeah. Because it was.
Asked him if he could name all the mini tours he played, he cracked, “I don’t have enough fingers and toes.” Here are the ones he remembered: the Gateway Tour, the Hooters Tour, the All-Star Tour, the Carolinas Pro Tour and the Carolina Mountain Tour.
“Pretty much for about three years, if somebody was holding a tournament, I was there playing,” said McGirt. “There were times when I would play a mini tour event, finish Saturday or Sunday, drive all the way to a Monday qualifier. If I didn’t get in, which I never did, I’d turn around and drive back and play a mini tour event the next day.”
Why did McGirt refuse to give up?
“Because I’m crazy,” he said. “We’re all nuts. We play this game. We chase a little ball around the grass and do it 18 times. We’re all nuts.”
Fair enough! But in all seriousness, McGirt simply didn’t want to let go of his dream.
“I kept doing it because my ultimate dream was to get on the PGA Tour and try to win on the PGA Tour,” he said. “The other thing was I didn’t know what else I was going to do.”
Toiling away for hardly any money is the life that most aspiring Tour pros whose journey you don’t hear about very often — if ever — have to lead. Professional golf isn’t all glitz and glam when you’re not a big college star or a phenom, and the mini tours are where many pros actually start out, with hopes of someday reaching the PGA Tour. Most don’t make it — not because they’re not talented or good enough, but because it’s tough and a hard life that doesn’t exactly pay the bills, per se.
However, it certainly builds character and the guys who make it, like McGirt, are usually more interesting with better stories, not to mention an appreciation for the many luxuries provided to the Tour pros week-in and week-out.
“Trust me, it’s very easy to get spoiled out here,” said McGirt. “And the guys that don’t seem to appreciate what we have every week are the guys who never had to play mini tours. When you show up every week, you’re paying for range balls, you’re paying for practice rounds.
“And honestly, the people don’t want you there — they’re giving up their golf course and they can’t play. They don’t really want you there. I think the guys who played mini tours, (which) paid for less than 100% of their entry fee, appreciate it more.”
McGirt finally played his way onto the PGA Tour for the 2011 season after finishing runner-up at Q-School in 2010. He managed to just qualify for the FedEx Cup Playoffs on the number at 125 in the standings and he even made it to the Deutsche Bank Championship, the second of four legs, to finish 83rd in points. However, the system wasn’t exactly perfect at that point and he didn’t keep his card because he finished 141st on the money list (this was before they changed things up, obviously). It was back to Q-school for McGirt in December, but considering his journey, he looked at it in a positive light — at least he still had a chance. He finished T13 at Q-school to re-earn his card for the 2012 season. Since then, he’s kept his card with relative ease.
On Sunday, his paycheck totaled a whopping $1.53 million and a three-year exemption on the PGA Tour. He also moved up to no. 43 in the world rankings, which guarantees him a spot in his first-ever U.S. Open. He was signed up to play the 36-hole sectional qualifier Monday, but was naturally happy to hear that was no longer necessary. He also earns an invitation to next year’s Masters, among the many other perks of winning on Tour.
As I mentioned, McGirt held off several proven winners — 2013 Memorial champ Matt Kuchar, DJ, Rory (who, to be fair, never really had a shot at winning) — and made clutch putts in the last two holes of regulation: a seven-footer and five-footer, respectively. Which isn’t as easy as it may sound under the circumstances. He finished with a 1-under 71 in the final round and matched Jon Curran, another guy who had to hoof it on the mini tours for several years before finally reaching the big leagues last season. Both posted 15-under for the week and headed back to the 18th tee for a playoff.
On the first extra hole, the par-4 18th, Curran, who played high school golf in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, with one of his best friends and former, longtime roommate in Jupiter, Florida, Keegan Bradley, knocked his drive down the left side of the fairway. It appeared that the advantage was in his hands, as McGirt pushed his drive into the right rough and his ball was buried so deep that you could barely see it. (I mean, I walked over to take a look and really couldn’t see it until one of TV guys pointed it out, and it would have been considered bad for a U.S. Open!)
“That’s because it was (absolutely buried),” said McGirt. “I looked at (Peter) Kostis, and I said, did you step on this? It was the worst lie all week. (My caddie) Brandon (Antus) and I were talking, and we were standing there, gosh, we haven’t hit that many shots out of the rough this week. Most of the fairways I missed, I hit it in a fairway bunker. I had no idea what to do with that.
“It was sitting down so much. I mean, that grass was six, seven inches long right there. I was still scared that on the off chance that it does come out screaming, just hack and hope. And I looked at (Brandon), and I said, which bunker is better, front center or front left? And he said, ‘Center, by far.'”
McGirt, with a 9-iron in his hands, just tried to hit it as hard as he could and he found his target — the front-center bunker. Meanwhile, Curran was safely on the intimidating green, which slopes severely from back-to-front. It is extremely daunting, and if you’re above the hole, it’s slippery, to say the least. With the wind gusting pretty strong downwind, Curran’s shot looked like it might roll off the back, but it caught the slope and rolled back to about pin-high 20 feet to the right.
It was looking good for Curran, but McGirt hit a hell of a bunker shot to three feet — and it really wasn’t the most straightforward, routine one, either. Tour players generally expect to knock it to within three feet if it’s a “basic” sand shot, but he had quite a bit of carry and not a lot of green to work with. Nicklaus will tell you different, though.
“That’s not a hard bunker shot,” said the 18-time major champion.
Which is exactly what you’d expect Nicklaus to say. McGirt disagreed, saying, “Given the conditions and the circumstances…” He added that he sure wouldn’t want to play it again.
“No, but it’s a bunker shot you can play,” said Nicklaus.
OK, that’s true.
Curran two-putted and McGirt confidently rolled in the three-footer to save par.
“(McGirt’s) up-and-down on the first playoff hole was unreal,” said Curran.
Back to the 18th tee they went. McGirt found the fairway off the tee this time and then his approach went a little long just off the green into the rough. He had a sidehill lie and it certainly wasn’t an easy chip. Meanwhile, Curran ended up in the fairway bunker off the right and then hit a 9-iron over the green, bouncing into the gallery and onto the cart path.
“It was a weird wind. I was in between clubs and I didn’t think it was going to play that short,” said Curran. “It was between a 9 or 8-iron and I don’t usually hit my 9-iron 150 yards, especially out of a bunker.”
Curran took a drop from the cart path and had a “really great lie,” but anything over the green is nearly impossible to stop.
“We had a little wind into us on the chips, which helped,” said Curran. “But it was an unbelievable up-and-down (by McGirt).”
Curran’s chip never had a chance, rolling 40 feet past the pin.
“It’s just that the shot was so hard and I didn’t want to leave it there (in the rough), either,” he said. “I wanted to give myself a chance for a putt.”
McGirt hit yet another amazing short game shot, chipping it just past the hole to about seven feet, giving him an uphill putt to save par.
“Will had a bit of an easier shot but it was still tough — the up-and-down percentage is still probably less than 20%,” said Curran.
Now, the pressure was on Curran. He nearly holed the long lag, but it just missed and he tapped in for bogey. The stage was set for McGirt to win. He confidently drained the putt right into the back of the cup.
“When I stood over the putt, I told myself, this is what you’ve dreamed of doing your whole life,” said McGirt. “You have this opportunity. Hit the best putt you can and see what happens… Surprisingly, I felt no nerves standing over that putt and poured it right in the middle.”
McGirt no longer needed to wonder if he’d ever make it on the PGA Tour. He had done that already, but now, 164 starts later, he also doesn’t need to ponder if he’d ever win on the PGA Tour.
“(I’ve) put (myself) in position a couple of times (to win),” said McGirt. “But I think you have to get your nose bloodied some to learn how to handle it, and I definitely had my nose bloodied a few times.”
After McGirt holed his putt for the win, all the cameras, media, officials and of course host Jack Nicklaus flooded the 18th green. Nicklaus first stopped to give Curran a handshake and shared some words.
“He said I was going to win a lot of events,” said Curran, who sounded rather touched by the prognosis from the legend and arguably the greatest golfer to have played the game.
Curran knows Nicklaus from being a member at the Bear’s Club in Florida. Like McGirt, their journeys onto the PGA Tour were somewhat similar — though Curran’s sounds a little less excruciating.
“I think guys like that have the best success on the PGA Tour,” said Curran, referring to the mini tour/Web.com Tour route. “Obviously, there’s some outliers with guys that come straight out of college and stuff like that, but I think guys that really prove themselves over the years and appreciate — not that some guys don’t appreciate it, but really appreciate it and understand where they’ve come from have the best results and the best careers on the PGA Tour. I admire that about a lot of guys out here for sure.”
Meanwhile, behind all the ruckus on and around the green, Keegan Bradley, who naturally stuck around to cheer on his good friend, put his arm around Curran’s caddie and comforted him.
“I’ve having a little —not shock but I’m in a daze, I’m still thinking about it (and) gathering myself, haven’t really thought about it yet,” said Curran, following his press conference. “I mean, this is a big deal. Second place. You don’t like losing, but second place is a great finish for me.”
About 15 feet away was another scrum that had gathered around Bradley, who was acting as caddie and carrying Curran’s clubs on his shoulder — a player carrying another player’s clubs is something you literally *never* see (at least I haven’t).
“Geez, that’s the most nervous I’ve ever been,” said Bradley, referring to the experience as a spectator. “My hands were shaking. I had to walk up some stairs and I literally fell because I was so nervous.”
Curran played his college golf at Vanderbilt before turning pro in 2009. And while Bradley had graduated from the Web.com Tour to the PGA Tour in 2011 and won the Byron Nelson Championship and then the PGA Championship his rookie year, Curran was still grinding it out on the mini tours. The high school teammates were roommates in Jupiter.
What are the odds, right? Pretty damn slim. I mean, it must be kind of weird when your BFF is winning a major and you’re still struggling to scrape by on the mini tours. Obviously, Curran had to be happy for his best friend and it probably served as even more motivation for him to work harder to reach that level.
“These guys are the best,” he said when I asked if it did. “I had thoughts of winning and hanging out with those guys — it sucks, but…those are my best friends.”
Curran fought his way onto the Web.com Tour in 2014 and won the Brasil Champions, the third event of the year. He went on to finish 12th on the Web.com Tour regular-season money list to secure a spot on the PGA Tour for the 2014-15 season. As a rookie, he lost to Alex Cejka in a playoff at the 2015 Puerto Rico Open. He finished 113th in FedExCup points standings to keep his card and earned $1,049,549 that season.
Bradley has always known Curran would make it on the PGA Tour.
“He’s always been a great player at every level,” said Bradley. “He’s a top player on the Tour. People probably don’t know it yet — they probably do more now. He’s a David Toms, Jim Furyk type of player.”
In other words, Curran, who is listed at 5’9″, is scrappy and has a strong short game. But you guessed it — he isn’t a bomber, ranking 197th in driving distance on Tour. So far this season he’s already earned $1,741,718, with just under a million from his runner-up finish at the Memorial. Curran is clearly going to be just fine and that day where he can also call himself a winner on the PGA Tour is coming soon.
As Curran and Bradley got ready to head to the airport, where the private jet was waiting for them, Bradley was still carrying Curran’s bag on his shoulder. In fact, he hadn’t set it down and had no intention of doing so or handing it off to his pal. The two walked out with Bradley still toting Curran’s clubs as they headed to the parking lot. A major champ acting as caddy for his friend? That’s definitely something I never thought I’d witness.
Aside: I’ve only had a few interactions with Curran, but my first impression when I met him at the Sony Open was that he was friendly, likable and genuine — just seemed like a good dude. I stand by that assessment. Hope to see him in the winner’s circle soon. And, to be honest, I remember thinking, wow, he’s so much cooler and normal compared to Keegan! (Just kidding…) My opinion of Keegan definitely went up a few (or maybe more?) notches based on what I saw Sunday afternoon.
Maybe I’m jaded, but that was something I thought I’d never see from anyone out on Tour. Good for both of them. It shows how obviously strong their friendship is and it was truly heartwarming to see. OK, bye, I’m going to puke now.
One last thing, I would have had a great picture to share of Curran and Keegan carrying his bag — w/the name — if their so-called ancient “PR” guy hadn’t been so terrible at his job (and as a person in general). I literally needed ONE more SECOND. I ranted about it a few times already on Twitter and Instagram, so go there if you want to read it. Sorry, if I just committed another awful faux pas, but I’ve been sick, cranky and extra feisty the past few days, so go find something else to criticize me for. I just want to go to sleep. Oh yeah, because I know at least *someone* is thinking it, go get me some Midol before I bite someone’s head off because I don’t like the shade of brown of their hair. OK, thanks! Peace out!