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North Carolina native making the most of his first Masters

William McGirt watches his drive from the 18th tee during Thursday’s first round of the Masters tournament at Augusta National. McGirt shot a 3-under 69 to finish four shots behind leader Charley Hoffman.
William McGirt watches his drive from the 18th tee during Thursday’s first round of the Masters tournament at Augusta National. McGirt shot a 3-under 69 to finish four shots behind leader Charley Hoffman. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

William McGirt had opportunities to play Augusta National over the years, and each time he turned down the invitation.

When a friend from Spartanburg who’s a member invited him for a friendly round, McGirt told him he didn’t want to play until he had a reason to.

Then McGirt won Jack Nicklaus’ tournament at Muirfield Village (Ohio) last year to secure a spot in the Masters, and his buddy called again.

“Is this a good enough reason?” his friend asked.

“Yes, sir,” McGirt said.

McGirt, 37, ended up playing the course twice in December, again in March, then got a jump-start on his first Masters by arriving a week before the start of the tournament.

He’s soaking it up -- the drives down Magnolia Lane, the sunsets on the clubhouse porch and Thursday’s ceremonial tee shots by Nicklaus and Gary Player. McGirt was one of the few players who showed up for the early-morning ceremony honoring Arnold Palmer, saying he never thought about missing it.

McGirt’s day only got better. And based on the way the former Wofford golfer fought through the wind en route to a 3-under 69, he plans on sticking around the whole weekend.

McGirt is in the first group Friday with an 8 a.m. tee time. He’ll start four strokes behind Charley Hoffman, who reeled off four back-nine birdies Thursday to card a 7-under 65.

The two Everymen atop the leader board made for a nice first-day story following the rains that forced cancellation of Wednesday’s Par-3 tournament and the sight of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson walking off the first tee box Thursday with a back injury.

McGirt, 37, grew up playing on a municipal course in Fairmont in the heart of tobacco country in eastern North Carolina. After an all-conference career at Wofford, he toiled on the mini-tours and might have tried another career if he’d had a passion for anything but golf.

His first pro victory came at the 2007 Cabarrus Classic, where McGirt prevailed in a playoff on the same weekend Tiger Woods won the Wells Fargo Championship down the road in Charlotte.

McGirt pocketed $16,000 for his Cabarrus Classic title. And while the details are fuzzy, McGirt remembered enough from his victory to compare it to Thursday’s round, thereby becoming the first person ever to use the former Tar Heel Tour as a point of reference for the Masters.

“I remember making the turn that day and somebody asked me how I was doing, and I said, ‘Maybe even or 1 over through the day.’ And he says, ‘Hang in there because nobody’s doing anything,’” McGirt said.

“It’s kind of like today. You just kind of hang around and take advantage of your opportunities when you have them.”

While wind wreaked havoc on a lot of well-intentioned shots Thursday (see Justin Spieth’s misadventures at 15), McGirt was McGiddy when he saw the flags blowing in the breeze.

McGirt is not a big hitter (147th on the PGA Tour in driving distance), so he welcomes anything that levels the playing field.

“I’m not the kind of person that’s going to get in a shootout with anybody. If it’s going to be 20, 22 under par, then I’m playing for about 15th,” he said. “I love it when it’s tough. And this place, when it plays like it did today, this can be one of the hardest golf courses you’ll ever see.”

McGirt finished with four birdies and one bogey, and said if he’d had a better lie in the fairway bunker at 3 he might have gone bogey-free. But he wasn’t nitpicking.

McGirt and Rod Pampling, his Australian playing partner, were one of only three twosomes Thursday. Pampling (2 over) said that helped both get in rhythm on what could have been a tough day.

“Willie played great. He’s a good ball-striker. So it was nice to feed off each other there,” Pampling said. “You could kind of see what (club) he was hitting, especially with the gusts.”

McGirt had a group of friends and family following him Thursday, including former Carolina Panthers president and Wofford athletics director Danny Morrison.

McGirt, whose best showing in a major was a 10th-place finish at the PGA Championship last year, hopes to see more supporters Friday.

And Saturday. And Sunday.

The longer McGirt stays, the worse it will be for his American Express card. Again -- he’s not complaining.

“We’ve done the concession stands. We’ve done the merchandise area. To actually be able to shop in the golf shop this time was pretty fun,” he said. “Just every time I drive down Magnolia Lane, it’s such a special moment. I’d say that’s probably one of the most sacred drives in the game.”

One he hopes to make three more times this week -- and for years to come, now that he has a reason for being here.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson