IN THE old days, before bubble shafts and sports psychologists,
the golf circuit finished its season in Pensacola, in the heart
of Florida's Redneck Riviera, where guys fished and played cards
and hung loose. Now golf is big-time, and the official PGA Tour
season concludes with a grand event for 30 players called the
Tour Championship, and it's played on hard courses, and the
victor gets $540,000, and it's work.
On Sunday in Tulsa, on the demanding, windblown fairways of
Southern Hills Country Club, Billy Mayfair, a cherubic
29-year-old and a former U.S. Amateur champion, patiently ground
out par after par, along with four bogeys and a birdie. His
closing 73 was unspectacular, but it won him the tournament and
pushed him to second place, behind Greg Norman, on the year-end
money list with $1,543,192. Mayfair played the four rounds in
280 strokes, even par and three strokes ahead of Corey Pavin and
Steve Elkington. When Pavin won the U.S. Open at Shinnecock
Hills in June, he played expertly for four days and finished at
even par too. Mayfair worked hard, and Southern Hills played
hard. For the week the course yielded only 14 subpar rounds, and
for the first time on the PGA Tour since 1981, no player in the
field broke par.
"I don't think you could've had a regular major tournament with
a full field here [at this time of year]," Mayfair said. "I
don't think you'd get done [before dark]."
There's a certain segment of the golfing public that doesn't get
Southern Hills. Your garden-variety, first-class-flying,
golf-playing businessman spends his days scheming to find ways
to get a tee time at Shinnecock Hills, while Southern Hills
never gets a thought. The course lacks aura; the five major
championships it has hosted have not been memorable. It has no
magnificent vistas, no breath of the ocean. But the Perry
Maxwell design is sound and fair; it requires a brain and 14
clubs, and that's all Tour professionals want. Which is why
there were no complaints about the circa 1958 scores.
That doesn't mean the players viewed the week as a friendly
72-hole get-together, even though that's how they described it
in the press tent. "It's the only place in the world you can
make a fool of yourself and they'll give you 50 grand," said
Brad (Dr. Dirt) Bryant. That's what Dirt said. On Sunday, with a
bellyache and bogeys threatening to cost him hundreds of
thousands of dollars, he massaged his temples on the 15th hole,
and just looking at the man made your head ache.
A spot in the field was supposed to have been a reward for the
top 30 money winners. Fred Couples, John Daly and last year's
winner, Mark McCumber, were among the missing, and what they
missed was punishment: fairway grass so short the players
couldn't spin the ball on their approach shots and sloping
greens that played with Augusta-like speed. Then there was the
wind that blew off the plains and through the heads of the
participants. By the time the players and their caddies made it
through 18 holes, their faces were often red with windburn. When
ABC commentator Brent Musberger, chipper as ever, observed that
the wind had changed directions from Thursday to Friday, making
previously easy holes hard, Linn Strickland, Ben Crenshaw's
looper, looked at a clubhouse television with dumbfounded awe
and said, "No kidding, Brent."
Mayfair, who won the Western Open in July, opened with a 68 and
a one-shot lead. He called his psychologist, Bob Rotella, or Dr.
Bob, as Mayfair refers to him. Dr. Bob made a plea for patience.
After an even-par 70 on Friday, Mayfair trailed Bryant by a
shot. Another call to Dr. Bob. Another plea for patience.
When Mayfair birdied Saturday's last hole and Bryant
double-bogeyed, Mayfair led by a margin of three shots, while
Bryant descended into a three-way tie for second with Elkington
and Pavin at even par. Analyzing his third-round 73, Bryant
said, "I started like a doofus, I finished like a dummy, and I
putted terrible in between." Maybe Dr. Dirt should start calling
Dr. Bob. Maybe Dr. Bob could teach Dirt to be his own best
friend. Instead, on the Saturday night of the Tour Championship,
Dr. Bob got a call from Mayfair. He again prescribed patience.
And Mayfair played his most patient golf on Sunday, just as they
do in the majors, though he did his grinding without the
customary heat from the usual suspects. Nick Faldo spent most of
the week eluding British tabloid reporters seeking anything on
his dissolving marriage and his new girlfriend, Brenna Cepelak,
a 20-year-old University of Arizona golfer, and he managed
nothing better than 70. That was Norman's, Lee Janzen's and
Peter Jacobsen's best too. Ernie Els carded no better than a 71,
and Davis Love III a 72. Nick Price's best was a 73, and he
finished last in the field at 19 over par. (Coupled with
Elkington's tie for second, that cost Price the Vardon Trophy
for low-scoring average on the Tour.)
Mayfair didn't miss them. After each round he would drive with
his wife in his Mercedes courtesy car down Tulsa's perfectly
parallel streets, back to the room at the DoubleTree. By night
he would place his calls to Dr. Bob, and by day he kept making
pars until there were no more calls and no more pars to make,
and the $540,000 and the title that goes with it were his.