Imagine a touring pro who calls the yips "focal dystonia myoclonus"; who is so spooked by even the shadow of a footprint on a green that he has "absolutely no chance" to make a two-foot putt; who admits writing mournful letters to a certain "Mrs. Golf at 3 a.m. Too hard? O.K. Try imagining a player who swings righthanded, putts lefthanded and wins the MONY Tournament of Champions.
Last week Mac O'Grady did all of the above, beating 28 other winners from last year's PGA Tour. Along the way he offered an exposed-nerve brand of commentary punctuated by polysyllabic pulsating metaphors of psychic carnage that seemed to come straight out of journals documenting golfing head cases. Fortunately his talent and heart eked out a victory over what seemed like a 19-handicap dose of negativism. By shooting 65-72-70-71-278 at La Costa Country Club in Carlsbad, Calif., O'Grady edged Rick Fehr by a shot and Greg Norman and Mark Calcavecchia by two to win the second tournament of his rapidly improving career.
"I don't know where this spirit comes from in me," said O'Grady, who proved his guts in battling himself when he crashed and burned 17 times before finally qualifying for the Tour four years ago. "I've died so many times."
Thanks to some fourth-round putting spasms that included a three-putt from eight feet, he nearly suffered a relapse. O'Grady, of course, had considered himself in critical condition as early as the second round, despite the way he was cruising around La Costa's 6,911-yard course with little more than a one-iron and a wedge. The shakiness of his lefthanded putting stroke and his fear of heel prints on the rain-softened greens were so acute that he found an abundance of ways to convey his feelings. "It was like having teeth pulled without Novocain," he said at first. "I thought if I touched the ball it was going to go off like a grenade" was another attempt. "Fear is just rampaging through your imagination" was well received, while "My conscious mind was hemorrhaging" made its point. In summary, said O'Grady, golf is like a sword. "One moment it's crowning you king, the next moment it is lacerating you."
January 19, 1987
O'Grady contends that all pros would admit to similar feelings if they were honest. But his brand of mental gore seems to make his peers nervous. "There are quite a few players who feel Mac has gone off the deep end," said Fehr, who played the last two rounds with O'Grady. "I don't. He's a brilliant guy, and it might be harder for him to play golf than someone who's not so bright. I know my mental images aren't as colorful as Mac's. I don't think anyone's are."
O'Grady's strong reaction to stimuli explains in large measure his ill-advised and recently aborted lawsuit against commissioner Deane Beman and the PGA Tour. After Beman fined O'Grady $500 for allegedly verbally abusing a tournament volunteer in New Orleans in 1984, conflict between them continued for two years. Beman subsequently fined him $5,000 more and suspended him for six tournaments. Although O'Grady initially fought the penalties, he eventually did pay up and sit out. But the case became a public annoyance to the PGA and O'Grady lost camaraderie on tour that he hasn't regained. "There isn't anyone out here who thinks he handled it properly, that's all," says Tom Kite. This year, O'Grady says, he won't talk publicly about his disagreements with Beman.
O'Grady's win wasn't the only development of note during the first week of the new PGA season. By skipping the tournament, Jack Nicklaus showed that he is serious about his intention to cut back drastically the number of events he plays. Norman, making his first U.S. appearance since last August, strode into town with a flatter, more controlled swing and calmly said that because he is getting nothing but better he doesn't see why he can't win the Grand Slam this year. Hal Sutton turned up with an Edd (Kookie) Byrnes hairstyle that looked as if he had been driving a convertible without a windshield. And regal Don January, claiming that at 57 he is plain worn out, beat Butch Baird in a playoff after both shot 287 in the senior division. "Thank you, men, and now I'm going to the bar," said January, who will play in only 12 events this year. "Those sounds you hear are my bones creaking."
Though he is a rather advanced 35 himself, O'Grady is generally regarded as the fittest athlete on the regular Tour. "Physically, I feel like I'm still in junior high school," he said. "Sometimes mentally as well." Many pros regard him as the finest ball-striker on tour. "Mac's physical attributes are astounding," says Ben Crenshaw. "He has hit some of the greatest shots seen on the PGA Tour." Last year his closing 62 at Hartford was the low final round of the year. It led to a playoff and his first tour victory.
O'Grady was nearly as hot at La Costa with his opening 65 on Wednesday. It tied him with Calcavecchia, whose round featured three strokes to one hole from four feet, followed by three more to the next hole from 541 yards. O'Grady loves such "vicissitudes." He said his own round had possessed "a special aura that takes over and illuminates.... Sometimes you learn that the golf club moves you and not vice versa."
After a struggling 72 on Thursday, which left him two strokes behind Fehr, O'Grady went from mystic to scientist. He spoke of research he had undertaken "to understand how the brain works for virtuoso performance on the PGA Tour." He described putts as "46 feet long," not 45 or 50. He said the soft footing on the wet course was giving him an "unpredictable launch frame." The resulting vestibular-ocular response, he said, was causing him to bypass proprioception and to activate unwanted contractions in his distal muscles. "Talk about panic anxiety," said O'Grady. "If the ground stays soft I'm dead."
O'Grady says that after the final round of the Canadian Open last year, which he led in the last round only to finish tied for sixth, he cried into the night. "At 3 a.m. I wrote a letter," he says. "It started, 'Dear Mrs. Golf. I hate you. Why do you continue to mutilate me with these merciless acts, like today...?' I stopped crying. And the next week I won at Hartford."
O'Grady looked as if he were headed for another letter-writing session after the 10th hole of the final round at La Costa. He had started the day leading Fehr by one and Norman and John Mahaffey by two. On the 9th he missed a three-footer that would have given him a three-stroke lead and three-putted from eight feet on the 10th. After he three-putted from 14 feet at 12 he was tied with Calcavecchia and only a stroke ahead of Norman and Fehr.
In the nick of time O'Grady applied a lesson from the great sage, Seve Ballesteros. "I once asked Seve, 'What do you do when the atrocities start to eventuate?' " said O'Grady. "Seve said, 'There's only one answer to that, and it is very hard to understand. Not everybody can understand it. You just have to forget it. That's it.' In other words, anterograde amnesia. Forgetting something immediately."
In short order O'Grady scrambled for par on 13 and made a 48-foot downhill putt for birdie on 14. "A big moment," he said. Finally, needing to get down in two from 45 feet on 18 to win, he felt a strange calm. "I told myself, I'm proud of you. Now just shake hands with destiny." He lagged to a foot and tapped in.
"In the psychological force field there is a certain mutation that takes place every time we are successful," explained O'Grady later. "The next time you get in the same situation, emotional memory circuits are activated." Wait a minute, Mac. What are you saying? "Hey, I know I can run with these guys," he said with a smile. "And I want to go all the way to the top." That's better.