Danny Stewart first met William McGirt in 2003 following a round at the Azalea Invitational at Country Club of Charleston (S.C), where Stewart is director of instruction. McGirt asked if Stewart could watch him hit a few shots on the practice range.
Stewart recalls McGirt hitting balls until dark took over. The two found a common ground and McGirt eventually asked if he could visit Stewart for some instruction. McGirt said his goal was to make the PGA Tour.
“You could tell he had the determination,” Stewart said. “He’s one of those guys who would walk through a wall to get where he was going.”
McGirt, 35, of Fairmont, has not had to bust through any walls, but has certainly been relentless in the pursuit of making and staying on the PGA Tour — 2014 being his fourth, and best, season.
“If you want something bad enough, you have to be willing to work for it,” McGirt said. “I’ve never been afraid to work hard and I think a lot of guys who know me will say I’ve spent as many or more hours on the range than anybody who has ever played this game.
“I enjoy the practice and all the things necessary to get better. And for some it never happens … and for others it takes a lot longer than others.”
McGirt is considered a grinder, having worked his way up through some lean years on the mini-tours and keeping his PGA Tour playing privileges through two trips to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament.
This season, despite the lingering absence of that first PGA Tour win, could be considered a breakthrough year. In 29 starts, McGirt totaled personal bests for top-10 finishes (four), top-25 finishes (eight), cuts made (19) and earnings ($1,275,738). When his season finished at the BMW Championship, the third of four tournaments in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, McGirt was 61st in points and ranked 124th in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“I was very pleased,” said McGirt, whose best finish on the big tour is second at the Canadian Open in 2012 and 2013. “It was kind of a weird year. I played well at courses I historically have not played well at and then played not so well at courses where I have had some success.”
The Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club, for example. McGirt had never made a cut and was prepared to scratch the event from future schedules if he missed a third straight cut. He shot successive career-best rounds of 69, 67, 65 before a final-round 73 tied him for sixth.
The Wyndham Championship was another example. In four previous starts he missed two cuts and finished no higher than tied for 52nd. This year he opened and closed with rounds of 64 to tie for eighth heading into the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
“It’s nice that I actually played well on some different type of golf courses,” McGirt said. “It lets me know that my game is progressing and that I can play almost any type of golf course.”
Stewart, who continues to work as McGirt’s instructor, is not surprised.
“He has learned more about what he needs to do to play really well,” Stewart said. “He then relates that to me and I try the best I can to help him get there.”
But Stewart is not alone in assisting McGirt, who has assembled a core team. In addition to Stewart, there is his wife, Sarah, whom he married in 2004; caddie Brandon Antus, who has been on McGirt’s bag for all but two tournaments since their pairing in 2011; and athletic therapist Victor Trasoff-Jilg.
“It’s me who ultimately has to go out and perform, but we are all in this journey together as a team,” said McGirt, who attended Wofford College and currently resides in Boiling Springs, S.C. “I have 100 percent trust in the fact they are trying to help be the best golfer I can possibly me. Everyone knows what their role is and no one oversteps their boundaries.”
McGirt grew up in an extended family of golfers, so he was always tagging along with a parent, grandparent or aunt or uncle to the golf course. He quit playing at age 8 and resumed at 15.
For two years after graduating from Wofford, McGirt played amateur tournaments in the summer and helped his father run the Eastern Junior Golf Association, a regional-based junior circuit throughout the Carolinas, the other nine months. In 2003, McGirt won the North Carolina Amateur and Cardinal Amateur and helped lead North Carolina to a second-place tie at the USGA Men’s State Team Championship.
“Up to that point I never felt like I had done well enough in tournaments to justify giving professional golf a shot,” said McGirt, who began his pro career on the Gateway Tour in 2004.
McGirt enjoyed relative financial success on the mini-tours in 2006 and 2007, “but not getting through the second round of Q-School put a damper on what could have been great years,” he said.
In 2009, he advanced to the final stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament and secured conditional status for the then-Nationwide Tour in 2010. He tied for third at the Bogota Open in his first start, but was at another crossroads later in the year.
With full status on the 2011 Nationwide Tour already secured based on finishing 34th on the tour’s 2010 money list, McGirt figured he was playing with house money.
“I spent the whole month of November convincing myself I was going to get my PGA Tour card at Q-School,” McGirt said. “I had nothing to lose.”
He finished second and earned his first PGA Tour card. McGirt had to go back through the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament process a year later, but has been earning his keep ever since.
“There are times when you doubt what you’re doing and doubt yourself,” McGirt said. “But the biggest thing I learned through it all is that I am not a quitter.”