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Canada’s Mackenzie Hughes talks lifelong battle against golf’s demons



Golf might be the only sport where you spend all day in your own head. Every golfer at least knows someone who can get driven to some bad places when things don’t go right. Now imagine how much that could be amplified if golf was your job.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Golf is a unique sport. No defence, no opposition, and the ball sits still until you hit it. Plenty of time to think. Maybe too much time.

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Canadian Mackenzie Hughes arrives at the PGA Championship with three top-15 finishes in his past five starts, including a T3 at the Valspar Championship and a T6 finish on Sunday at the elevated Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow.

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“I haven’t had a ton of success at the PGA Championship necessarily, made a couple cuts, but I haven’t really contended there,” he said. “I have my game trending in the right direction.”

It was a good finish last week in his adopted hometown of Charlotte, but it had its challenges and some of them were all too familiar for the 33-year-old from Dundas, Ont.

“I walked off 18 on Thursday really frustrated with my day, felt like I played pretty good, didn’t get much out of it,” he said. “I got a bit better every day not just score-wise but like mentally, better focus, better clarity the last few rounds.”

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Golf might be the only sport where you spend all day in your own head. Every golfer at least knows someone who can get driven to some bad places when things don’t go right. Now imagine how much that could be amplified if golf was your job.

Ever since Hughes was a boy he had a penchant for being overly hard on himself on the course. A few bad shots would spiral into negative self-talk, which spiralled into more bad shots. And on and on and on. He knew it wasn’t good for his game — or his mental well-being — but for a long time it was just part of the deal.

“I beat myself up and didn’t allow myself to make mistakes and if I did, I would tear myself down,” Hughes told Postmedia in a one-on-one interview. “I’m trying to stay on this side of things and keep my attitude in the right place, but it takes work.”

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Over the past few years Hughes has prioritized changing the way he thinks, working as hard on his mental game as he works on his swing. And it has worked. He finished the 2020 season inside the top-100 in world rankings for the first time, and has finished inside the top-50 three of the past four years. He has two PGA Tour wins and ranks 63rd heading into the season’s second major.

“It’s still a huge priority for me. It’s something I think I will be working on for the rest of my career and my life,” he said. “You just never have that part mastered or figured out. For me it’s always a work in progress and something I’m focused on everyday: personal and self development and growth. I’ve come a long, long way in the last three to five years, but I still have a long way to go.”

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The progress has been undeniable, to the point that his college coach at Kent State Herb Page once told Postmedia that, at first, he could barely recognize this version of Hughes, and is incredibly proud of his former student.

Inside the ropes, much of the responsibility falls onto his caddie. Hughes said plenty of credit goes to former caddie Jace Walker, and his current bagman Julien Trudeau.

“My caddie has to be club selector, wind gauger, and part-time therapist out there,” Hughes said. “Let’s say I’m having a bad moment, having a caddie with the wherewithal to know when to step in and know the right thing to say at the right time is a big key.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t bumps in the road, including earlier this season at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am where Hughes finished tied for 71st in the 80-man no-cut event.

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“It’s not the easiest thing all the time,” he said. “I had a moment where I was finishing my third round at Pebble and I was being super hard on myself and kind of had a heart-to-heart with my caddie and people on my team and I just thought I can’t do this to myself, I don’t like it, it doesn’t feel good, and so that’s just the stuff that I’m very aware of and I reflect on a lot.

“I’m trying to have less of those moments where I beat myself up and give myself no slack. I’ve had lots of growth but I need to keep working hard at it because it’s a game that beats you up a lot.”

In recent years the mental well-being of professional athletes has come increasingly in focus as top players across numerous sports have been open with some of their struggles. May is Mental Health Awareness month in the U.S. and last week was Mental Health Week in Canada, and it’s a positive sign that more and more athletes are comfortable talking about the issue.

“I did a good job of keeping it at the course,” Hughes said. “There were times when I would be home or eating dinner and not exactly chipper but it wasn’t like I was miserable or couldn’t be consoled, or in a dark place. I was at least able to keep perspective on the good things in life that matter.”

Hughes and his wife Jenna have two sons and a young daughter that keep the golfer plenty busy away from the course.

“I’ve had lots of people in my life showing me the right things,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t want to hear them, but you need to.”

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