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AUGUSTA, Ga. – William McGirt scuffled on the mini-tours for years, went through qualifying school twice and was 36 last summer when he won for the first time on the PGA Tour. Until four years ago, he couldn't bring himself to even look at a leaderboard.
He goes off Friday morning at the Masters with the best chance of anyone in the star-studded field to reel in first-round leader Charley Hoffman at 7 under. Still, McGirt doesn't expect sleep to come easy.
"When you're going through that," McGirt said of his struggles after posting a surprisingly solid 69, "you don't know if this moment will ever happen. There's been years and years, ever since I've been on tour, that I didn't know if this moment would ever happen."
After he rolled in the last of four birdie putts at No. 16, he set himself a modest goal.
"What was playing through my mind?" he repeated a question. "Let's get this thing to the house without hurting ourselves."
You'd have to know plenty about McGirt's past to understand how he feels at the moment. There are a few highlights, but a lot more lows. One of the most revealing stories he told Thursday evening takes place in 2012, when McGirt was on the practice green at the PGA Championship preparing to play in his first major. He qualified after finishing second by a shot earlier at the Canadian Open.
Tiger Woods strolled onto the same green with his caddie, Joe LaCava, who sidled over and congratulated McGirt's caddie, Brandon Antus, about the near-win in Canada. When LaCava did the same to McGirt, the golfer let slip his only regret was refusing to look at the leaderboard that Sunday.
"Tiger, I think, might have been mid-stroke," McGirt recalled. "He looks up and says, 'What?' And I said, 'Yeah, I never looked at a leaderboard.'"
Woods walked over — "We're literally nose to nose," McGirt said — and told him, "Spill the beans."
McGirt explained it was the first time he had a chance to win on tour and he was afraid of messing it up. Woods had a comeback ready.
"You think Kobe (Bryant) doesn't look at the scoreboard with a minute to go in the game?" Woods asked.
McGirt had a comeback of his own. He realized how weak it sounded even as the words spilled out of his mouth.
"The whole time, I'm saying, 'Look, I get your point. You've just got to understand where I'm coming from.' We go back and forth a little bit. Finally he looks at me and says, 'OK. You're an idiot.'"
McGirt had an even better comeback for that one.
"I said, 'Hey, at least we can agree on something.' But it was very helpful. He probably doesn't realize how much he actually helped me by making that comment. ... It's something that I've remained conscious of since."
McGirt had to like what he saw Thursday. That first win last year came at the Memorial, the kind of course that host Jack Nicklaus told McGirt earlier this week would prepare him well for his first Masters. The few times McGirt walked across Augusta National before, it was as a fan or a playing guest.
He followed some of his old routines, out of habit, like spending a fortune in the merchandise store. Asked for an estimate, McGirt smiled broadly.
"I'm scared to look, honestly," he said to laughter.
He couldn't resist getting up early to watch Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial tee shots, either. But when the time came to hit his own drive came four hours later, McGirt was still battling nerves.
"I didn't want to get out there and not be able to get the ball to sit on the tee or not be able to get the driver to sit still. I tried to do everything I could to prepare myself, but I was very calm today.
"Surprisingly," he couldn't help but adding a moment later.