William McGirt is enjoying the ride this week in his first Masters at the age of 37 – residing near the top of the leaderboard into the third round – and he’s got somebody riding shotgun who is enjoying the experience just about as much.
McGirt grew up in Fairmont, N.C., which is barely 60 miles from Myrtle Beach. His success has allowed Rodd Baxley, the sports editor of the small newspaper that has followed his career, The Robesonian in Lumberton, N.C., to follow him to Augusta National Golf Club and chronicle his experience in the 81st Masters Tournament.
The week in Augusta has been especially gratifying for Baxley because the news staff of the newspaper has been displaced from its offices since flooding from Hurricane Matthew in early October got about thigh-high in the building.
Editor Donnie Douglas escaped the newspaper just before the parking lot flooded. “He got out just in time but unfortunately it was pretty extensive as far as the flooding goes,” Baxley said.
The staff is renting an undersized office building while repairs continue, with an anticipated reopening date in June. The printing press is on higher ground so it is still running on the newspaper property.
Baxley believes he’s the first reporter from The Robesonian to ever cover the Masters. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a reason to come,” said Baxley, who has been impressed by the grounds and new palatial media facility at Augusta National. “Everything is so perfect I didn’t want to touch anything and mess it up,” he said.
Baxley, 25, who played basketball at Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, N.C., has covered the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the past. “It’s just a different world here, and I knew this was the mecca for William,” Baxley said.
Baxley is claimed by both Pinecrest Country Club in Lumberton and Fairmont Golf Club, which was his home course, as both have his memorabilia, and McGirt still gives back to his community. His parents, Curtis and Anne McGirt, still live in Fairmont and McGirt returned to Fairmont Golf Club last July for a free outing that included a one-hour Q&A, informal clinic and Srixon-Cleveland demo day.
Baxley’s father works at Rodney’s Barber Shop in Bladenboro, N.C., which he has supplied with some McGirt memorabilia. “Everybody at home is always asking about him,” Baxley said.
McGirt, who enters Sunday’s final round tied 11th and six shots off the lead at even-par 216, has remained accessible to Baxley, as well. “He makes it real easy on me,” Baxley said. “I can shoot him a text and he always gets back to me. It might be a few hours it might be a few minutes. But he always gets back to me and is always very open.”
The late Arnold Palmer’s spirit has been alive at Augusta National this week, and just about everyone has a story about their interactions with Palmer that reflected how special Palmer was.
McGirt had one from his first year playing Palmer’s Bay Hill Invitational. He was on the putting green and Palmer approached.
“He says, ‘Good morning. I want to thank you for something,’ ” McGirt recalled. “All of a sudden I have millions of thoughts running through my head, why is he thanking me being No. 1. He said, ‘I just signed something over there and yours was the only signature I could read.’
“And I quickly said, ‘I remember some old guy said if you're going to take the time to sign it, make it legible.’ And he gave me a thumbs-up and a wink, and he was gone.”