LOS ANGELES — Golf, at its competitive core, is the ultimate sport of survival.
That applies to all levels of the game, from its most elite, on the PGA Tour, and to its most raw, like the low-budget, dusty mini-tours around the country.
At the PGA Tour level, for example, star Rickie Fowler has fallen out of the top 50 in the world rankings and is in jeopardy of missing the Masters for the first time since 2010.
Those are champagne problems Willie Mack III wishes he had.
Mack is playing the Genesis Invitational this week at Riviera Country Club as the recipient of the event’s Charlie Sifford memorial exemption, given to a deserving minority golfer as chosen by the Tiger Woods Foundation. And if Mack knows one thing better than anything, it’s survival.
Mack is a 32-year-old survivor who has been given so many signs it might be the time to quit his pursuit of a big-time golf career that he probably has lost count.
Living in his Ford Mustang for 18 months and sleeping in hotel parking lots might have been impetus to quit.
So, too, might his car catching fire and eventually blowing up on I-95 in Florida in 2018.
Guess what he pulled out of the car with him before the car exploded?
His golf clubs.
The rest of his possessions — wallet, clothes, his college national championship ring from Bethune-Cookman — went up in flames.
Why the golf clubs and not his wallet?
“At least if I had my clubs, I could make a few bucks,’’ Mack said Tuesday.
And, there probably was no money in the wallet anyway.
Without his golf clubs, Mack would be lost. He has been hustling with them his entire life, winning 11 times in college and another 65 tournaments on mini-tours while sleeping in his car for a number of them about seven years ago.
“You have to make a decision to either get a hotel and spend some extra money or play in the next tournament or eat,’’ Mack said. “I still eat at the dollar menu at McDonald’s to this day. Yeah, it was rough.’’
When he was playing the mini-tours, if he didn’t win one tournament, he might not have been able to afford paying the entry fee to the next one.
“He’s had to win to survive,’’ Ken Bentley, the CEO of the Advocate Professional Golf Association, the tour on which Mack plays, recently told Golf Channel. “It made him focus on winning, and that’s probably why he’s won so much.’’
A win or even a top-10 finish at this week’s Genesis would change his life. A top 10 would get him into the next PGA Tour event. A win would get him a lot more than that.
“You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t get the opportunity to show your skills and your game to the world, it’s kind of blah,’’ Mack said.
When he got the call from Genesis tournament director Mike Antonori alerting him of his invite, the first thing Mack did was call his father, Willie Mack II. His father introduced him to the game at age 6 and sacrificed food and rent money to allow him to pursue his dream.
Willie Mack II, a mental health counselor in Michigan, cried over the phone when his son gave him the news.
“Just knowing that my dad gave all his money and his time to put into something that his son wanted to do … I didn’t want to give up not only for myself, but for him,’’ Mack said.
“It brings tears to my eyes anytime I hear him talk about the sacrifices he knows that I’ve made for him,’’ Mack’s father told The Post by phone on Tuesday. “But it’s not a sacrifice to me. As a parent, you want to give your kinds the best outcome they can have.’’
That looked a bit bleak when his son was sleeping in his car for those 18 months.
“Those were the nights that I couldn’t sleep,’’ the father said. “Bad things go through your mind when you don’t have a place to lay your head where you are safe and comfortable. That worried me.’’
That worry has been turned to joy this week — for father and son.
Collin Morikawa, the reigning PGA Championship winner, played a practice round with Mack and said: “I could see it in his eyes he feels comfortable in this situation. You can see he’s got game. Hopefully, he has a great week and makes it all the way to Sunday and has a great finish to the tournament.’’
If that happens, Mack will be a long way from sleeping in his Mustang in those hotel parking lots.
Mack called his struggles “real life.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “But I’ve come a long way and I’m glad I’m not in that car. I definitely am going to work hard and make sure I don’t get back in there.’’