Inspired by greats, William McGirt embraces first Masters start

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- When William McGirt woke up Thursday morning, he had no idea how his day would finish. He didn't know he would post a 3-under 69 in his first Masters round; he didn't know at one point he would find his name atop one of those iconic hand-operated leaderboards.

He did know, however, exactly how his day would start.

McGirt knew he would wake up early, arrive at Augusta National nearly four hours before his tee time and stand on the first tee to witness the honorary start to this week's tournament, which was scheduled to include a moment of silence for the late Arnold Palmer, a four-time Masters champion.

Everyone has a Palmer story, but McGirt's tale is a little extra special. During his rookie year on the PGA Tour, McGirt was on the practice green at Bay Hill when the tournament host approached and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"I want to thank you for something," Palmer told him. "I just signed something over there and yours was the only signature I could read."

Thinking quickly, McGirt replied, "I remember some old guy said if you're going to take the time to sign it, make it legible."

Palmer offered his famous thumbs-up and a wink, then he was gone.

McGirt has always loved that story, his first interaction with The King. So, no. There was never any question in his mind. Even with an 11:07 a.m. tee time Thursday, he was going to be standing on that tee box at 7:40, paying homage to the man.

The truth is, McGirt has been embracing his initial Masters start ever since it became official. He attended this tournament for the first time back in 1988, when he was eight years old. As he bounced around mini-tours for years, even pondering giving up the dream of playing professionally, he had a few offers to play Augusta National. Instead, he turned them down. He didn't want to play until he was invited into the tournament.

That happened last year, when he qualified by winning the Memorial Tournament.

McGirt made the two-hour drive twice in December, again in March, and once again last week, getting in plenty of reps on a course where he's grown increasingly comfortable.

He's done all of the things you'd want and expect a Masters rookie to do this week. He bought food from the concession stands and bought merchandise from the pro shop. (How much? "AMEX is going to be very happy to have me as a customer," he joked. "I'm scared to look, honestly.") He's enjoyed the drive down Magnolia Lane each morning, admitting he got a little teary-eyed the first time. He's even taken in some of the more scenic pleasures.

"It's kind of neat to hang around late in the afternoons and walk out on the porch outside the locker room and watch as everybody's leaving," he said. "I think that's one of the most beautiful sunsets. And same thing with the morning sunrise. To sit out there and watch the sun come up is pretty darn special."

On Tuesday afternoon, correctly anticipating that the next day's Par-3 Contest would be washed away by rain, McGirt took pictures with his family, including his two young children already dressed in their Masters caddie jumpsuits.

It was during this time when he happened to run into Jack Nicklaus -- the same man whose tournament he had won to qualify for Augusta, the same man who had won here a record six times.

"He just told me to play smart and play within myself," McGirt recalled. "He said, 'If you can win at my place, you can win here,' because there's a lot of similarities in the two golf courses. ... He just kind of started talking and I just listened."

It wasn't the first time he received advice from one of the game's greats.

Five years ago, he finished runner-up at the Canadian Open. A week later, on the practice green at the PGA Championship, McGirt was telling someone his only regret was not looking at the leaderboard while in contention. Tiger Woods stopped mid-putt, wheeled around and got nose-to-nose with him. "Spill the beans," he said.

When McGirt explained that he hadn't watched the scores while in contention, Woods was incredulous.

"You think Kobe [Bryant] doesn't look at the scoreboard with a minute to go in the game?" he asked him. After a quick back-and-forth, Woods came to a conclusion: "You're an idiot."

"Hey," answered McGirt. "At least we can agree on something."

Ever since then, he's been a leaderboard-watcher. Especially on Thursday.

Toward the end of his first competitive Masters round -- a round he called one of the best of his career, which finished with him four strokes behind leader Charley Hoffman -- McGirt looked up at one of those old-fashioned scoreboards. He doesn't even remember which hole it was, but he knows he poked his caddie, Brandon Antus, and pointed to the top.

There was his name in those big letters, leading the world's most prestigious tournament.

"Hey, look up there," he told the caddie.

Then, they both laughed a little, just another instance of how McGirt has embraced this long-awaited opportunity.