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Will MacKenzie proving to be a favourite

Surfing enthusiast Will MacKenzie provided the most refreshing story at the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship, despite all the hype and chit-chat about the new-look PGA Tour.

The inaugural FedExCup campaign will unquestionably hog more than its fair share of the headlines before the final points leader is crowned champion in mid-September with unprecedented earnings of $10 million.

For sheer unpredictability, though, extreme adventurer MacKenzie gave golf fans extreme value with his uplifting performance at last week's tournament on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

The 32-year-old from North Carolina, who talks and thinks like a golf fan despite starting his third full season on the PGA Tour, played with panache before ending the week in a tie for fourth.

Early in the final round at Kapalua's Plantation Course, he appeared the most likely threat to eventual champion Vijay Singh before losing momentum over the closing stretch.

MacKenzie, a professional kayaker who also enjoys snowboarding and rock climbing, reeled off three consecutive birdies from the par-three second to close to within four shots of the lead.

Although he then fell back, he ended the week as he began it -- as the overwhelming fan favorite.

While few doubted the experienced Singh would, in all likelihood, maintain control of the tournament, many of the Kapalua spectators dared to dream that the "feel-good" story scripted by Mackenzie would end on a triumphant note.

After all, this was the PGA Tour player who had flirted with the lead all week with an impeccable display of controlled golf in gusting trade winds.

This was the PGA Tour player who had prepared for the season-opening event by surfing on four successive afternoons off the picturesque Kapalua coastline.

And this was the same PGA Tour player who rather foolishly gave out his Maui hotel room number during a live television interview with the Golf Channel after the second round.

Hardly surprisingly, Mackenzie's mailbox was full when he returned to his room that evening and he had to leave his telephone off the hook to get enough sleep to prepare for the third day.

He described his television gaffe as a "rookie mistake" but made sure he gave full value to those fans who took the trouble to wish him luck over the phone.

"I had quite a few calls, very inspiring calls," MacKenzie told reporters. "I guess people sort of liked my story and, you know what, that's what it's all about.

"That's why we're playing for all the nice perks, because of fan support. We want people to come out and watch. There's nothing better, and I used to be right there. I still am.

"I sit there and watch Vijay Singh hit balls and be as happy as a little whatever watching Tiger Woods," added MacKenzie, who lived out of his van in Montana for five years while doing odd jobs, snowboarding, kayaking and rock climbing.

"I'm a fan of watching these guys play. Now that I get a little fanfare it's real nice."

Like big-hitting American John Daly, another fan favorite on the PGA Tour, MacKenzie has a natural empathy with the galleries.

"I'm all golf now and I'm having a great time out there," he said. "I'm so blessed to be out here, I can't even tell you."

The only disappointment last week for Willie Mac, as he is known by his friends, was his below-par surfing fitness.

"I haven't surfed for seven years really, since I was in Costa Rica and then I was in fabulous surfing shape," said the American, who gave up golf for almost a decade after his sophomore year in high school.

"I'm in Hawaii, I'm here to play golf, but I'm also here to catch a wave or two. And I don't want to be out there chopping. I want to be able to paddle and have some strength out there."

This week, Mackenzie will be able to indulge in both loves.

While playing in the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club, the second event on the 2007 PGA Tour, he plans to get in some surfing around Diamond Head on the south-east end of the island of Oahu.

January 10, 2007


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