McGirt's hardscrabble journey pays off at Memorial

DUBLIN, Ohio -- The ball wasn't even in the hole yet, but William McGirt just knew. He took his right hand off the putter and instinctively raised it in the air, the universal symbol for success. His fist began pumping as the ball tumbled into its destination, the Memorial Tournament title now secured.

On the surface, this was the culmination of a hard-fought playoff victory after an exacting 18 holes of regulation. In reality, it was so much more.

McGirt picked up the game as a boy in his native North Carolina, where he'd play with his grandfather and his grandfather's friends. He learned to play fast, because if you didn't play fast enough, well, they'd just drive the cart on ahead of you. After attending Wofford College, he turned professional in 2004, embarking on a journey that included competing in mini-tour events everywhere and, just about, every day.

There was the Tarheel Tour, which became the eGolf Tour. The Hooters Tour. The Carolina Mountain Tour. The All-Star Tour. The Carolinas Pro Tour. The Gateway Tour.

"If somebody was holding a tournament, I was there playing," he recalled. "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, turn around and drive back and play a mini-tour event the next day."

It's the side of professional golf that most casual observers never see. Heck, most of 'em never even know about it.

The years of toiling on developmental circuits. Lengthy car rides from one tournament to the next. Playing for a fraction of the money compared to the elite tours.

All of it to keep alive the dream of reaching that top level someday.

"I'm crazy," McGirt said with a smile. "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. I kept doing it because this was my ultimate dream, to get on the PGA Tour and try to win on the PGA Tour."

He then shrugged and admitted, "The other thing was, I didn't know what else I was going to do."

McGirt finally reached that dream of making the PGA Tour in 2011. Since then, he has both enjoyed and endured the natural progression that comes with membership. A few close calls that turned into heartbreaking losses. Dozens of learning moments. More missed cuts than he'd care to remember.

It's enough to chip away at the luster of competing at the highest level, but that never really happened for McGirt. Instead, he credits those years on the mini-tour circuits for steeling his resolve. For toughening him up. For allowing him to appreciate the job more than some of his peers.

"The guys who don't seem to appreciate what we have every week are the guys who never had to play the mini-tours," he suggested. "When you show up, 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. They don't want you there."

As he said these words, tournament host Jack Nicklaus sat next to him, nodding his head in agreement. He was asked what a guy like McGirt would do without having the fertile training ground of the developmental circuits.

"He would've had a hard time playing golf," Nicklaus said matter-of-factly. "There wouldn't have been any place to learn."

Even Jon Curran, the man who lost in the two-hole playoff to McGirt on Sunday afternoon, understood there's something a little more special about a winner who rises from this competitive background.

"I think guys like that have the best success on the PGA Tour," said Curran. "Guys that really prove themselves over the years and 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."

The last time McGirt won, anywhere, was nine years ago, when he cashed a $16,000 check. "I'd thought I hit it big," he remembered. This one was worth $1.53 million, plus the spoils -- berths in major championships and a three-year exemption on the PGA Tour.

Nearly an hour after he raised his arm triumphantly as he watched his ball drop into the hole, after all of the photo opportunities and glad-handing with tournament officials and television interviews, McGirt was still on that final green, soaking it all in.

There, too, was his caddie, Brandon Antus, who has worked with him ever since his rookie season. He knows the stories; he has witnessed the journey.

Not far from where that final putt fell into the hole, McGirt embraced Antus in a bear hug and whispered a few celebratory words.

"We did it," he told him. "We did it. We did it. We did it. Finally."