Michael Visacki bowed his head and closed his eyes, trying to stop the flood he knew was coming. There had been tears the day before, and those tears—and the moment that caused them—brought him in front of cameras for a press conference at the Valspar Championship Tuesday afternoon. And through eight minutes, Visacki held strong. He patiently answered questions about himself and his family and his background, doing his best to introduce himself to a world that only knew him through a one-minute clip.
But then Visacki was asked about that clip and why it resonated like it has. It was a question that reminded Visacki of what had just taken place, how the demon he’d been chasing had been caught, and how long he had been chasing it. So he paused, his hand on his temple holding his head up, and tried to explain the seemingly unexplainable.
“Just a lot of people give up on their dreams, probably because they can’t afford it,” Visacki mustered through a trembling voice. “But I’ve been lucky enough to be with my parents and [they’ve] been able to help me out sometimes to keep living it.”
Michael Visacki is a 27-year-old mini-tour legend who made a 20-footer in a playoff at a Monday qualifier to earn his first career PGA Tour start. There are others who make 20-foot walk-offs at Monday qualifiers and there are plenty of small-circuit studs with big-league aspirations. Michael is the man of the hour because an emotional phone call to his father—letting him know the dream had become a reality—was caught on camera. The video went viral, making its way to parts that normally ignore the sport (looking at you, TMZ). And for good reason: Your heart would have to be the size of the Grinch’s to not feel for Michael in that minute.
Monday delivered fame to Visacki. Tuesday gave way to something better: The man behind it.
Visacki comes from a blue-collar upbringing. He grew up in Sarasota, Fla., where his parents, Mike and Donna, owned a transport company. But money was tough to come by, to the point where they skipped dinner some nights so Michael had enough to eat. However, their boy got into golf at age 8 and showed enough promise that he started playing events away from home. Sometimes bills went unpaid in order to facilitate Michael’s travels.
“Every weekend there would be days where tournaments would, they would want us to register about two weeks in advance to know that they had so many players in [the field]. And sometimes money was tight where my parents would call the director and be like, ‘Do you mind putting my son in? I’ll have the money for you when we get to the event,’ ” Visacki said at Innisbrook Tuesday. “And they knew that I was a really good junior golfer, so they would accept that, they would waive that restriction for me back in the junior days.”
Visacki was really good, earning a ride to the University of Central Florida. He didn’t stay long, leaving after a year, because unlike most college freshman, Visacki knew what he wanted to do with his life and wanted to get that life started. And yes, Visacki is, in fact, a mini-tour folk hero, racking up 37 wins on the West Florida Pro Tour, one of which came last year over then-World No. 39 Jazz Janewattananond.
But the hard truth about mini-tour life is it costs a lot to compete for only a little. To stay afloat Visacki took jobs working in cart barns and pro shops. It gave him some money while offering cheap practice avenues as Visacki balanced as many as 45 tournament starts a year. It can be a nice way to spend a gap year, but once those years start piling up it can be a testing existence.
“Sometimes entry fees are $400 to $600 and if you don’t win or come second, I mean you barely break even and then it’s not like every week is a free entry fee that we’re just playing for a prize,” Visacki explained. “Like if you miss two or three cuts and each cut, each tournament costs you $500 then in two, three weeks you’re down $1,500 just in entry fee, let alone practicing, having to worry about paying rent, phone bill, electricity, gas, hopefully the car”s not going to break down.”
Players endure this gauntlet in hopes of a break. For seven years, that break didn’t come for Visacki. There were close calls; he lost a ball in a tree on the second-to-last hole of the second stage of Q School two years ago, missing out on the Finals—and Korn Ferry Tour status—by a shot. He had entered his share of Monday qualifiers, and did earn his way into the 2018 Kansas City Golf Classic, but never sniffed the PGA Tour.
In spite of the struggles, watching summers turn to fall without status, Visacki never second-guessed himself. It was taking him longer than he thought, but he still had an idea of where he was heading. So he endured, driving the country in a 2010 Honda Accord from tournament to tournament, believing his sense of direction was true.
“I know I have the game to compete out here and I never once thought about quitting,” Visacki said. “I said I got to keep going, I’m not getting any younger, so just keep on fighting.”
A lifetime of fighting has brought him to this moment, a moment on Monday that made Visacki take stock of the journey it took to get here. “We’re not very much of a crying family, but this is the first time in a long time I think that we all cried because we knew how much work and effort, blood, sweat, tears, has gone into me trying to make it and to finally be able to do it, it’s a dream come true,” Visacki said.
Now he is on the precipice of something much bigger. It’s easy to romanticize about what could lie ahead, although Visacki was pragmatic in his hopes for the week. “I mean this is a dream come true so I’m going to have to take every opportunity I can and I know I can do it.”
Yet his moment comes at an interesting time. Last week news of the tour’s Player Impact Program leaked, an initiative aimed at compensating the game’s most popular names separate from how they perform on the course. No matter one’s thoughts on the initiative, it underlines the belief that the professional game is powered by and revolves around a finite number of planets.
True as that may be, Visacki and his story are a reminder that it is a big universe, where even the smallest stars—if only for a moment—can burn bright.