Rosaforte Report: Champ family’s road from racism to Tour winner
Mack Champ was home in Sacramento, Calif., with neighbors on Sunday night, watching his 23-year-old grandson, Cameron, win the Sanderson Farms Championship. On television, the 77-year-old Vietnam veteran could see his son, Jeff, on the screen, handing his cell phone to Cameron on the 18th green at the Country Club of Mississippi.
It may have been the first time in history that the winner of a PGA Tour event received a congratulatory phone call before signing his card.
“I called my dad and he answered,” Jeff said. “I said (to Mack), ‘Stay on hold here. You’ve got to talk real quick!’”
At the other end of the line, Cameron thanked his grandfather for all he had done over the years. He wore a tattoo of his grandparents’ favorite Bible passage, Proverbs 3:6. Like his father, he was the child of bi-racial parents. As his father has always told him, “It’s not about you. If it wasn’t for your grandfather, you’re not playing this game.”
From the plastic clubs he first started swinging in his grandpa’s backyard at age 2, to the set of Tiger Woods irons Mack brought home, from the hours they spent at the par-3 Foothills Golf Center in Sacramento, to a win in his second start as an exempt member of the PGA Tour, the biggest hitter in tournament golf wouldn’t be the biggest hit in this week’s Shriners Hospital For Children Open in Las Vegas without his “Pops.”
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Mack said when we spoke on Monday evening. “I knew one of these days he was going to get there. I didn’t think it was going to get there that soon. It’s just amazing to see the progress from a boy until now.”
The victory was a poignant one for Mack, one of 10 children in his family who started caddying before he went to grade school at 7 years old. He estimated the work at a public course in Columbus, Texas in 1948 added up to 40 cents an hour, adding it was just extra money for his family. Jeff took his son there to see it.
“Back in those times it was different for African Americans,” Mack said. “They didn’t call us African American. In America we were called Negros. There was no place for us to play. You weren’t allowed.”
Even after going through the military, and serving in Vietnam, Mack wasn’t welcome in certain restaurants, at least not through the front door – including one in College Station, Texas, where six decades later Cameron was an All-American at Texas A&M and represented his country in the Walker Cup.
“You weren’t allowed,” said Mack, an airman wearing his basic training Air Force uniform that day. “You had to go through back doors.”
Despite the restrictions, Mack snuck in his shots and his rounds while on duty in Europe. “He was a pretty good player who could shoot in the 70s,” Jeff said during Cameron’s breakout opening 36 holes in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, where he stood T-8. “But he had a caddie swing, a home-made swing.”
Said Sean Foley, Cameron’s swing coach since 2010: “His granddad is a huge influence on him. I’ve met Mack a couple times. He’s just a classic, a one-of-a-kind guy.”
Cameron’s swing is the classic modern-day example of athleticism and speed. Some of the DNA comes from his father, a quarterback, catcher and point guard on his high-school football, baseball and basketball teams. But while Jeff played college baseball at San Diego State, and in the Baltimore Orioles organization, his bat speed never came close to what Cameron registers on TrackMan.
Jim Flick, the Hall of Fame instructor, noticed right away when Mack took Cameron to the TaylorMade facility when Cameron was 9 or 10 years old. “Flick told me, ‘Grandpa, I love that swing. I love that lag.’ Anybody can teach that and take credit for that, but no one can teach that and take credit for that. But no one can teach that and explain that lag. Some coaches know physics and a lot of stuff, but he was born with that. No one can take credit for that. No one.”
That may be true, but without his grandfather, he’s not where he is today. As Mack has said often, “I tell Cameron it’s not just where you come from. It’s where you’re going.”