Mackenzie Hughes felt good about his chances of succeeding at U.S. Open qualifying, even if he wasn't all that familiar with the courses.
Turns out, he got all the help he needed from his caddie.
Hughes, a PGA Tour winner, finished tied for second at his sectional qualifying site and earned a spot in his second U.S. Open after shooting 10-under par over 36 holes.
Hughes admitted his approach to Monday's 36-hole marathon wasn't perfect - he hadn't heard of, seen, or been to the two golf courses ever before - but it worked out well. He said he knew he was in a good position after the first round (he shot a 5-under-par 66) and just tried to keep the momentum going into the second 18.
"I had a sense from the get-go that I had some good mojo going, to get myself into a good spot," Hughes said by phone after his qualifier wrapped up Monday night. "Obviously, you don't know what (the score was) going to be, but I felt I had some pretty good control, some pretty good thoughts to go with. And, here I am."
Hughes relied on his caddie a lot on Monday, who had been around one of the golf courses before. There was a little guesswork on some shots, Hughes admitted, but things still worked out well. He didn't know where the trouble was, so at some points throughout the day, his caddie advised him to hit it to a certain spot and Hughes was able to do just that.
On one occasion, Hughes did wonder what he had got himself into.
There was a par five that snaked around, way to the right, and then came back left with a large collection of trees in the middle. Hughes' caddie advised him to hit it over the middle of the trees.
"All I'm seeing is jungle," said Hughes. "But I had to trust him, I had no other choice. I didn't know what was up there. I hit it right where he told me to hit it and I made birdie. If I went to that hole without someone telling me where to go or what to do, I would have been lost. But it worked out."
Hughes played the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club and missed the cut, but he was just 22 years old then and a lot has changed since his major championship debut, both personally and professionally.
Back then, he was thrilled at a chance to warm up next to Tiger Woods (so much so that he took to Twitter to document the experience) on the driving range. This year, Hughes played in a PGA Tour tournament round next to his idol, and thrived under the pressure, shooting a 4-under-par 68.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
"If you can handle that, everything afterwards is pretty much gravy," Hughes said.
Hughes is playing this week at the FedEx Memphis St. Jude Classic before heading to New York next week. He said he isn't as nervous about the occasion, having played in a U.S. Open before, but he's just as excited by the opportunity to play in another major.
"I'm not going to be wondering what it's like and I won't be in awe when I get there. I've played enough Tour events," he explained. "It's a big deal to play in the U.S. Open, but I'm not going to be staying up at night thinking about playing in the U.S. Open."
Hughes has never played Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and only recalls a little of what happened in 2004, the last time the U.S. Open was contested there. His countryman, Mike Weir, finished T-4 that year, and Hughes said he might reach out to him to ask a few questions, although the golf course has changed significantly since then.
More than just the opportunity to play in another major, Hughes is looking at next week as a chance to test his mettle against the best players in the world on a big stage, and perhaps get some good vibes going through the rest of the summer schedule on the PGA Tour.
Hughes and his wife, Jenna, welcomed their first child late last year and it's been a year of adjustments for him off the course. But he said the last few weeks have started to feel "more normal."
Between playing with Woods at The Players Championship and competing Monday when he needed to, Hughes knows his game can heat up along with the summer weather.
"I feel like I'm one of those guys who plays better if he's in contention ... if I get near the lead I would much rather be there than trying to make cuts," he said. "Once I get going and put four rounds together, I'll be close to the lead and hopefully I can have a nice week soon and the outlook on the season will change a lot."
Adam Stanley has written about golf since 2011 for PGATOUR.com, LPGA.com, and the Canadian Press, among other organizations. He's also a frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail. Find him on Twitter @adam_stanley.