The history of can't-miss prodigies in golf is written in broken dreams that would make the most chaw-stained baseball scout weep. Happily, the manner in which Billy Mayfair won the U.S. Amateur Championship last week at the Jupiter Hills Club in Jupiter, Fla., suggests he may be an exception.
By beating Eric Rebmann 4 and 3 in Sunday's final, the 21-year-old Mayfair became the first player to win both the Amateur and the U.S. Public Links championship, which he won in 1986. When you throw in that Mayfair was also the 1987 NCAA Player of the Year, winning six of the nine college tournaments he played in last season as a junior at Arizona State, as well as an undefeated member of this year's victorious Walker Cup team, it is hard to imagine him ever becoming a divot-taking version of Bobo Holloman or Karl Spooner.
"Ben Crenshaw was the best amateur golfer I've ever seen," said Jay Sigel, whose bid for a third Amateur title was thwarted by Rebmann in the quarterfinals. "There have been a few others, and Mayfair is showing he might soon be in that company."
Mayfair never trailed Rebmann, a 23-year-old Floridian who was graduated in June from the University of Tennessee, where he was also a two-time Academic All-America while majoring in finance. When Rebmann birdied the 27th hole to pull within one, Mayfair promptly birdied the next two to regain command. After the victory, he was aglow in the anticipation of all the rewards likely to come his way. "Now I might be able to get a date," he said with a laugh.
The Phoenix native has been a star since he began playing tournament golf at age seven. His longest layoff from the game since then was the three weeks he was out last spring after suffering a pinched nerve in his back during the NCAA championships at Ohio State. The towheaded Mayfair bears a facial resemblance to Larry Bird, and the fact that he, like Bird, loves to spend hour after hour practicing would make an interesting subject for students of physiognomy.
Rebmann, on the other hand, was virtually unknown to most of the field. He played in the Amateur almost as an afterthought. He had planned to turn professional right after graduation, but he turned procrastinator instead.
Until last week Rebmann's only brush with fame came when he landed a role as an extra in Caddyshack. The movie was filmed at his home course, Rolling Hills Golf Resort in Davie, Fla., when Rebmann was a locker-room attendant. "Unfortunately, Eric got left on the cutting-room floor," said his grandmother, Betty Rebmann, part of the 20-plus-member entourage of family and friends who came to watch their man play. True to the movie's spirit, Rebmann wore a sweat-stained baseball cap and wrinkled cotton shorts during six days of play at Jupiter Hills. "Eric has a bunch of regular golf clothes," explained his younger brother and caddie, Matt, "but now is not the time to be pulling out the polyester."
The Florida summer sun made Jupiter Hills feel like an oven, but it didn't diminish its greatness as a test of golf. The 90° heat seemed less oppressive on a course that, with its rugged rolling terrain, bent-grass greens and foreboding wastelands, was more evocative of Pine Valley than the typical Florida resort course.
A frail-looking 5'8" and 155 pounds, Mayfair was regularly outdriven, but he had enough confidence in his long irons to use a three-wood off the tee on all but two of Jupiter Hills' driving holes. The biggest obstacle he faced in Rebmann was the psychological one of playing an underdog who knew he was on a career roll. "Winning would be beyond my wildest dreams," said Rebmann before the match. "And I've had some pretty wild dreams."
But Rebmann missed six-foot birdie putts on the first two holes on Sunday and never regained confidence in his putter. May-fair, meanwhile, was in a self-described "no mercy" mode. "He played mistake-free golf, just about," said Rebmann.
Mayfair plans to finish at Arizona State and defend his championship next year at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., before turning professional. "I guess all I can say is that this is a stepping-stone," he said. Billy May-fair has just taken an awfully long stride.