Here is a hypothetical situation: There are two teams, A and B, preparing to meet in a best-of-seven playoff series for a sport’s championship. Team A is highly favored to win. Team B is not. For which team would you root?
In 1991, two researchers from Bowling Green State University posed this scenario to more than a hundred college students. Eighty-one percent chose the underdog.
Sports offer us a constant conflict of expectations from which stories are allowed to play out. The devoted sports fan follows statistics, measures performance and allows herself or himself to feel the emotions associated with winning and losing. This is all done as a means of enhancing the competitions we watch to the point of a narrative. This is the attraction. We are drawn to narratives, and the most appealing narratives include the unlikely.
However, in works of fiction there is a certain point to which the boundaries of believability can extend. Typically, these restrictions do not exist in sports, although this distinction has recently been put to the test by a 22-year-old golfer from Dundas, Ontario, named Mackenzie Hughes.
The Canadian Amateur champion from 2011 and 2012 is playing at the U.S. Open this weekend at the Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with 155 other competitors. This seems as though it would be the proper place for a champion golfer to be, but in terms of professional competitive experience, the graduate of Kent State University shares more in common with you and me than Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.
Nonetheless, there will not be a single competitor at Merion this weekend who will be able to compete with Hughes in one all-important regard: How they got there.
The inaugural U.S. Open was played on October 4, 1895, on a nine-hole course in Newport, Rhode Island, among 11 competitors. Today, nearly 10,000 golfers compete for one of the spots not given to players exempt from qualifying. The “open” part of the U.S. Open is not only a part of the name. Thousands compete at 111 local qualifiers just to secure a spot in one of 11 final qualifying events, from which 79 golfers go on to compete in the PGA’s second major championship of the year.
At his local qualifier in May, Hughes was told by a course official that he was four strokes off the pace with only four holes remaining. Undeterred, the young Canadian birdied three of those final four holes to finish one shot away from the next round of qualifying. It was a valiant effort that would at the very least grant him a chance via playoff for the first alternate spot. It was then that Hughes was informed that the other golfers who shared his score had already left the course, and so – through determination and a bit of luck – he became the default first alternate.
Almost a month went by, other plans were arranged, and the prospect of playing in the U.S. Open was a distant memory for the first-year pro chasing experience at any tournament that would have him. Then, tour veteran Jay Haas made a decision that would drastically alter the rookie’s course. Haas informed the USGA he would be competing in a Champions Tour event in Iowa rather than taking his spot in the final sectional qualifying round. As the first alternate, Hughes was given his abandoned slot.
After quickly cancelling his flight to Victoria, British Columnia, where a PGA Canada event beckoned, Hughes departed for St. Louis, Missouri, to compete with 40 other golfers for two U.S. Open spots. After 36 holes, Hughes was tied with American golfer Travis Johns for the final spot because there is very little that’s meant to come easy in this world. A playoff ensued, with Hughes making par on the first hole, which was good enough to overcome the bunker bound Johns, and gain entry to the U.S. Open.
Disclosure: theScore is sponsoring Mackenzie Hughes during the U.S. Open.
It took a series of remarkable events to combine with the opportunity that Hughes afforded himself, but the end result was a trip to Philadelphia to compete with the greatest players in the world. It’s important to remember that while elements outside of one’s control can be influential, it remains up to the individual to be properly positioned to take advantage of that influence.
On Thursday morning, prior to his son teeing off in the biggest tournament of his life, Hughes’s father Jeff didn’t mention luck or the prestige of the U.S. Open. Instead, he spoke about his and his wife Sandra’s pride in their youngest son, not for gaining entry, but for the realization of the effort it has taken to get there.
It’s really just another tournament. I hope as always that he will win but that isn’t what makes me tick. I love to watch Mac compete. I love the big stage for him to get the recognition he deserves. Mac has worked exceptionally hard to get here.
The road to the U.S. Open might not have been a typical path for Hughes, but neither was his entry into golf in the first place. While both of his parents enjoy the sport, and he may have started at an early age, it was a matter of convenience – not an Earl Woods-like intensity – that brought him out on the course for the first time as a four-year-old.
According to his father, “It was just easier to take him with us then to find a babysitter. We had a cut down driver and putter just to entertain him so we could play. The rest is history. He was a natural.”
If the story of Mackenzie Hughes teaches us anything, it’s that it takes a lot of hard work, perseverance and good luck to become a natural. Fortunately, it takes little effort at all to cheer for this underdog to succeed.