On this sun-drenched Florida Sunday, Larry Mize has his nose over a three-foot putt and his mind on a career that got away. He was up five shots with 12 holes to go in the Tournament Players Championship, but now, standing on the 18th green, he needs this putt to remain tied—with 45,000 people there and God knows how many at home waiting to see who will fail, he or John Mahaffey, who has his own three-footer to make. The stakes are the $162,000 winner's check, and a precious 10-year exemption from qualifying.
And now as Mize, 27, steps up to the putt, both history and his card whisper his de-Mize. Hadn't he blown a four-shot lead with nine holes to play at the Kemper Open in 1985, and hadn't he led by a stroke going into the final round earlier this year at San Diego and shot 75? Today he has made bogey, bogey, par on the last three holes; two misses from two yards or less. All he wants in the world is for these final three feet to surrender without incident.
Mahaffey, 37, isn't a picture of nonchalance, either. He has needed a few Heimlich maneuvers in his time. He lost the '75 Open at Medinah in a playoff; then led in 1976 at Atlanta and bogeyed the last three holes to lose. He redeemed himself in '78 when he beat Tom Watson and Jerry Pate in sudden death at Oakmont to win the PGA, then slowly faded from the picture.
But two years ago Mahaffey gave up drinking and smoking and took up dedication, which made him less fun but richer. "I just didn't care before," he said. "Then one day I realized I was starting to lose everything I had. Guys that I used to be able to beat were beating me. I had let years go by without trying to improve myself. I realized I had better turn my life around."
Last year he finished in the Top 10 on the money list for the first time in 10 years. Yet he still didn't feel whole. He had promised himself a biggie—he hadn't won a biggie in eight years. So now, as he faces his putt, three lousy feet of bent grass may challenge him to take one, Sucker.
Standing off the green is PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Be-man, who is not playing but is nonetheless about even par for the tournament, which, for Beman these days, is a banner week. The good news is that a caddie isn't going to win.
No, this time the TPC leader board carried such luminaries as Brett Upper (who finished fourth) and Dave Rummells (10th), who shot 65 the second day and credited his torrid performance to the Dakotas tour. "Gah," said Rummells, who is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where they say "gah" a lot, "the money in the Dakotas was unbelievable." He used his new fame to give the world the skinny (he is 6 feet, 150) on himself.
Likes: Golf. "I played 52 straight weeks last year."
Dislikes: The tour's big names. "They aren't very friendly. They're all in their own little world. They don't care about anybody but themselves."
By Saturday, Rummells didn't have to worry. The "fifth major" (as Jacksonville realtors like to call the TPC) was missing some really big names: Nicklaus, Zoeller, Peete, Irwin, Stadler and Strange. For this, Beman should give himself a two-stroke penalty. He sent those luminaries off in a cosmic clump Thursday morning so that they would be playing in the afternoon on Friday and would be seen on the USA Cable telecast. (Is this an admission by the commish that the tour really does need superstars?) Alas, the wind came up hard that afternoon and blew the big boys out of the event. The TPC had loaded all its eggs in one big Easter basket and then dropped the basket.
Q: Why'd they do it, Tom Watson?
A: To make money. And it's not right.
Not to worry, though, because there was still Ken Green, whose sister Shelley caddies for him, sharing the first-round lead at six-under-par with Mize, Bob Tway, Tony Sills and Keith Fergus. Then there was Jodie Mudd, who was fined for slow play on Thursday for a round that lasted a reasonable four hours and two minutes, which got Mudd to thinking. "Everybody's so tense out here lately," he said. "Everybody's defending something. But, in my opinion, if Deane Be-man is out here to do the best job for the tour, he's done a suspect job."
Luckily for guys like Mudd and Watson, the PGA Tour, seeing the winds of dissent swirl around them, has come up with a surefire solution. A liaison for the players? A grievance committee? A player vote? Nope.
A suggestion box.
The question is, is there a box big enough?
To commissoner Beman: Get a good lawyer, Bailiff Breath. Love, Mac.
You'll remember that Mac O'Grady is facing a hefty fine and up to six weeks' suspension from the tour, but he's appealing. In fact, O'Grady has pretty much told friends he would sooner caddie for Beman in his boxer shorts than pay up.
Somehow, you knew their snit was not yet at the kiss-and-make-up stage when you saw that O'Grady, and O'Grady alone, signed the black-ink clubhouse board in red. Take that, world.
What O'Grady wants from Beman is a letter of apology. In exchange, he will deliver letters of apology to everybody he has slighted lately. O'Grady's letter is supposedly already written, so all he needs is a heavy-duty Xerox machine.
What Beman wants is O'Grady's curly scalp, and he is going to extravagant lengths to get it. At a membership meeting, he showed the players a 12-minute video that documented O'Grady's alleged indiscretions in New Orleans two years ago, the incident that precipitated this mess. (The video reportedly had a good beat but was hard to dance to.)
Still, give last week to Beman on points. O'Grady lost a $1,000 challenge to the TPC's Tim Davis, a.k.a. the Ambassador of the Tour (he runs TPC course locker rooms), that he would never play another Beman-conceived TPC course. He played, but, so far, he has coughed up only $125 of the grand. Worse, he missed the cut. Worst, Mahaffey won and he is on the tour's policy board, which O'Grady has mashed like a three-wood, too.
O'Grady, however, isn't the only guy who doesn't like Beman's concept of stadium golf. The Tournament Players Club used to be a tough test, but there were complaints without letup ("They messed up a good swamp," J.C. Snead once said) until finally, the tour exhumed the elephants buried in the greens and this year replaced the tricky Bermuda grass with truer bent grass.
Thus, the first three rounds brought unusually low scores and if you didn't make even par or better for Thursday and Friday, the lowest TPC cut ever, you were on your way to the Greater Greensboro Open.
By Saturday, Mize and Bob Murphy were tied for the lead at 10 under par, with Rummells next at nine under and Mahaffey another four shots back. Now Mize and Mahaffey pulled away from the pack, Mahaffey shooting a 65, which still left him four down to Mize, who had a 66. "At least they're not pronouncing it 'Meeze' anymore," Larry said. But Mize doesn't wear a four-shot lead as well as, say, Ray Floyd. His final rounds this year have averaged more than four shots worse than his next-to-last rounds.
No wonder nobody was conceding the cash and the 10-year tour exemption to Mize on Sunday, even when he birdied the fourth hole to go five shots up. Mahaffey, playing with him, knew what Mize might be thinking. "Believe me," Mahaffey said, "I've given many acceptance speeches on the course that I've never been able to deliver."
Mize's lead was a shaky three when they came to 15, where he was left with "a fried egg" lie in a bunker. He flew it across the green, chipped back and made bogey. Mahaffey missed an eight-footer for birdie, but the margin was down to two.
On the 16th, Mahaffey birdied after reaching the par-5 in two, while Mize bogeyed, having chunked his chip from the fringe not more than six feet.
Now came the TPC's cruel 138-yard 17th, where ospreys hover above, alligators below and vultures in Izod shirts to the side, all of them hoping to see eight-irons that should have been sevens and sevens that should have been eights. It was here that Mize, who had been coming unraveled like a 99¢ novel, hit the shot of his life.
"I decided to hit it right at the pin," he said, and he did. It snapped to attention four feet from the hole, which was about 20 feet closer than Mahaffey's shot.
Finally Mize would win: I want to thank everybody, especially...except that he missed the putt. Alone as alone can be on that island, alone as a player can be on the tour, with only six men there—three players and three caddies—he pulled it left of the hole, giving nobody, not even the ball, any lip. Mize and Mahaffey left the hole as they had approached it, tied.
Hello 18. Hello the toughest hole on the course. Hello 4.4 stroke average. Mahaffey: drive, six-iron, putt past by three feet. Mize: drive, four-iron, chip left to three feet.
Alphabetically, Mize comes between Miller, Johnny (22 tour wins) and Moody, Orville (1). Someday, somewhere, Mize will make a move toward Johnny. But today, he is still an Orville. He missed the putt.
"I put it where I wanted to," he said. "I didn't see any break.
"Maybe the next time I'll feel more comfortable in this situation," Mize said later as he and his wife, Bonnie, who is eight months pregnant, packed a few sagging balloons into their car for the drive home to Columbus, Ga. "It's the biggest check I've ever won [$97,200], but right now it feels kind of hollow."
Hello John Mahaffey, whose putt radared in—and whose career officially made its own Easter Sunday comeback.
"I stood over that putt, and I said, 'You've been here so many times. You've got the experience. Now just do this.' "
He did it, making him the 13th man in history to go over $2 million and the top check casher so far this year, with $244,736. He also joins a pretty fair list of TPC champions. Of the 11 who have won it, eight (Jack Nicklaus, Al Geiberger, Lanny Wadkins, Lee Trevino, Floyd, Pate, Hal Sutton and Mahaffey) have won at least one other major.
But unlike Pate in 1982, Mahaffey did not throw Beman in the water to celebrate his victory. That was probably for the best. The way Beman's luck is running right now, O'Grady probably knows the alligators.