Columbus, Georgia, is an excellent place to be a devout
Christian, which is convenient for Larry Mize, because he is a
devout Christian and he lives in Columbus, a well-worn notch in
the Bible Belt, an Old South city located clear across the Peach
State from Augusta. Mize was born in Augusta 38 years ago, and
10 years ago he struck one of the most famous shots ever played
in the city when he holed out a 140-foot pitch on the 2nd hole
of a sudden-death playoff to win the 1987 Masters. But it's
Columbus, where church listings fill 11 pages and parts of two
others in the Yellow Pages, that Larry Mize regards as home.
A churchgoing man in Columbus, like the gourmand in Paris, could
be overwhelmed by his choices. There are Pentecostal churches in
Columbus, Full Gospel and Foursquare Gospel, Free Will Baptist,
Missionary Baptist and Primitive Baptist churches. And in the
heart of downtown--two blocks from the Springer Opera House,
where recently a run of Jesus Christ Superstar concluded--is one
of the grandest churches in Muscogee County, the First Baptist
of Columbus, a church with classic Grecian lines and six Doric
columns and 1,700 active members, five of whom are named Mize.
"Actually, we don't get to church as often as I'd like," Mize
says on a recent warm morning, with more than a hint of spring,
and the Masters, in the air. Mize is making a stop on a driving
tour of the city where his wife, Bonnie, and their three
children were born. He is sitting behind the wheel of his
sensible Lexus, which is idling in front of his church, and he
is talking about his spirituality and his family, which for Mize
are intertwined subjects and the ones about which he is most
animated. "I'm at tournaments a lot on Sundays, and when I'm
home our youngest is still a little too young to sit still
through a whole service." Robert turned four on April 2. Patrick
is eight. David is to celebrate his 11th birthday four days
after the conclusion of the Masters. "So what we do is watch it
at home. The ABC affiliate--Channel 9 in Columbus, 10 on our
cable box--carries the service Sunday mornings at 11. That's
nice because I can enjoy the sermon without worrying about the
kids making too much noise."
Lately Mize has been at home on Sundays with atypical frequency.
Since winning the Masters he has had one big year, 1993, when he
registered the last two of his four Tour wins, won again in the
off-season and, with 12 months' worth of work, paid for the big,
beautiful house he was then building. In the years since, there
hasn't been much of anything. In 1994 Mize finished third in the
Masters but produced no wins, no places, no other shows. In '95
Mize played in 22 tournaments, missed the cut in the four majors
and three other events and finished 67th on the money list, his
lowest ranking since his rookie season. Last year was nearly the
same. Mize played in 23 Tour events and missed the cut in eight
of them, was seldom in the hunt and again finished 67th on the
money list. This year, through the Masters--in which he finished
30th, 24 strokes behind Tiger Woods--Mize has played in six
events and won $71,395.
Mize has a game built for making cuts (he has had a handful of
seasons in which he has missed only two or three) and for
contending for titles on weeks when par is a good score. He's a
short hitter but straight, more accurate with a five-iron than
many of his touring brethren are with an eight, sturdy in every
department, even if his putting and chipping are not what they
once were. But for most of the past three years the golf life of
Larry Mize, a polite and modest man, has exhibited no signs of
sustained excellence. Which is either a mystery or wholly
"Sometimes--I don't like to admit it, but to be honest I have
to--I've become a little distracted on Tour," Mize says. He's
now standing in the rough off the 5th fairway at Green Island
Country Club, several miles from his house. He's hitting a few
dozen dirt-encrusted balata balls. The distraction works like
this. Mize is at a Tour stop and he's not playing well. (His
iron shots are going straight when he wants them to draw. He's
not holing seven- and eight-footers with the robotic regularity
he once did.) Before long, in his mind he's at one of the boys'
soccer games, or he's working out the left hand of a vexing
Chopin composition, or he's planting a garden with Bonnie.
Suddenly it's Friday afternoon and he's scrolling through a
computer listing of scores, figuring out where he'll be on
Sunday morning. "I think it's something that every player who is
close to his family goes through at some point," he says.
And where, exactly, at this point in his golfing development, is
Mize supposed to find motivation? He does not, after all,
believe--as Eric Liddell, the British runner canonized in
Chariots of Fire, did--that the spirit of his Lord and Savior is
meant to shine through his playing of his sport. "I knock a
four-iron close, that's me and a lot of practice, not God," Mize
says, "although God gave me a talent, which I was able to
Then there's the issue of money. Mize is rich. He has made just
less than $5 million on the Tour since playing in his first
event in 1980. Even last year's disappointing showing was worth
$317,468. He has made more than $1.5 million abroad, including
$550,000 for winning the Johnnie Walker World Championship in
Jamaica in '93. He has earned another $5 million in
endorsements, performance bonuses and appearance fees over the
years. He has no financial needs, pressing or otherwise.
Moreover, Larry Mize has won a major, won it memorably, won it
while wearing a shirt with a cardboard collar and
purple-and-white stripes hanging limply around his slight upper
body, won it over Greg Norman when he was really the Shark and
Seve Ballesteros when he was at the height of his muttering
powers, won it by making a don't-forget-about-me birdie on the
72nd hole of the tournament, a par on the first playoff hole
that sent the Spanish artista hiking up the 10th fairway in the
wrong direction, and a 46-yard chip-in on the second playoff
hole, the 11th, where Norman, not yet so practiced at this,
showed his good grace after sustaining a grave blow. Mize won
his major in the city of his birth, while staying at his
parents' house, on the course he dreamed about as a kid, at the
tournament he worked as a teenager.
The fact is, if Larry Mize decided never to play another
tournament, he would have had a good and interesting and
lucrative career, a lifetime in golf defined by the five seconds
it took for his ball to leave the aging face of his Jack
Nicklaus model MacGregor sand wedge, bounce twice uphill on
closely mown fairway grass, land on the green and run down a
long slope on a beeline for the hole, bumping the flagstick
before making the disappearing act of all time.
Mize has hit his balls at Green Island. He is determined to get
his dull years behind him. Earlier in the morning he talked to
his teaching pro, Chuck Cook of Austin, over the telephone.
Thinking that it will help Mize get some sting back into his
strike, Cook wants him to stand more erect when addressing the
ball. For now, Mize's standard nine-iron travels about 130
yards. When he stiffed his approach shot on the 18th hole on
Sunday at the '87 Masters, the shot was close to 140 yards,
uphill, played with a nine-iron.
Mize could live in the past, if that's what he wanted to do. His
sports psychologist, Richard Coop, thinks Mize could benefit
from watching his old tapes more often. He thinks Mize doesn't
give himself enough credit for being as good as he is or for
accomplishing what he has.
"I can't tell you what I was thinking," Mize is saying. He's in
his house now, watching his historic shot on tape. It's past
midnight; the boys and Mize's visiting father, a retired
telephone executive who owns Baskin-Robbins in Augusta and
Hilton Head, S.C., are sleeping, and he's sitting upright in a
chair in his living room, where the shelves have little clusters
of books about golf and God and green eggs and ham. He was
trying to hit it close. He was trying to hole the shot. He was
trying to get the ball on the face of the club. "There was only
one shot to play," he says. The bump-and-run, with the club face
square and the ball toward the back of his stance, the St.
Andrews-Augusta National version of the shot.
Every day, practically, somebody will ask him about the shot.
How many attempts do you think you would need before you could
hole it again? ("Impossible to say, but I made it when I needed
to," he says.) How far past would the ball have gone if it had
missed the hole? ("Maybe eight feet. I've heard Norman say
four.") Would you ever try the shot again, for fun? ("No. All it
would do is interfere with the memory.") What Mize knows, and
what the tape confirms, is that for a brief moment he did
something perfectly, not perfect in any Godlike sense, just a
perfectly executed golf shot, timed exquisitely. When the ball
went down, Mize's arms went up and he did an exultant dance, and
in the middle of it he sneaked a look straight up, a nod to the
Big Fella. Then he hushed the crowd so Norman could attempt his
30-footer to tie, in the monastic silence for which the Masters
is so justly famous.
At that moment God had been in Larry Mize's life, as active
participant, for just short of a year. Mize had been a
churchgoer all his life but he was reborn as a Christian, he
says, on April 17, 1986, the day his first child, David, was
born. There was no light, Mize says, just the realization that
he had to "trust Christ for my salvation." Right then Mize
stopped his cheatin' and boozin', his gamblin' and lyin'.
Kidding, kidding. Anybody who has known Mize for a while knows
that he has never been a great sinner. He did, however, excise
"cuss words" from his vocabulary. Within a year of David's
birth, Bonnie Mize, had her spiritual rebirth too. If you ask
Bonnie and Larry separately about their religious renewals, they
use the same precise words: "Before, I knew God intellectually;
now I love Him with my heart."
So Mize has God, a loving family, money, playing privileges at
Augusta National (which he has used exactly twice in a decade).
What more is there to want?
When the Tour left California for Florida, Mize went home to
Columbus. He didn't play Doral. He didn't play Honda. Finally,
he got the clubs out for the Bay Hill Invitational. The Bay Hill
Club is a bear, nearly 7,200 yards long. The 9th is a par-4 of
460 yards. In the first round, with the course soft and still,
Tiger Woods played the hole with a driver and a nine-iron. A
short while later Mize played the hole with a driver and a
three-wood. That's called hard work.
The night before the tournament, Mize attended the weekly Tour
Bible study meeting, held at the home of Sue and Brad Bryant,
who live near Bay Hill. Steve Jones attended. So did Jim
Gallagher Jr., Bernhard Langer, Scott Simpson and two dozen
others, most of them nonplayers, eating hamburgers and pouring
Cherry Kool-Aid from a plastic container. Larry Moody, the
pastor who leads the Tour's study, was talking about Charles
Blondin, the Great Blondin, who, in the century before this one,
would walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope while pushing a
wheelbarrow. "And all the while," Moody said, "his eyes would be
fixed on a silver star. And that's what the Lord, Jesus Christ,
is for you, that silver star." As Mize ingested these words, his
eyes widened, and he nodded his head and drew a breath of air.
His chest heaved ever so slightly.
Three and a half days later Mize wakes up in his room at the
Residence Inn in Orlando. It's Sunday morning, and he's 10 shots
out of the lead at Bay Hill. His wife and boys are in Columbus,
getting ready for Sunday school at First Baptist. Mize thinks of
his God, his wife, his children, his purpose. "That silver
star--for me, in golf--is the flagstick," he says. "It's what
Harvey Penick used to say: 'Take dead aim.'" A series of 18
flagsticks, stood up to be knocked down. Mize knows about dead
aim. He took it once, a decade ago, very memorably. He would
like to do it again. "I've got to play my hardest," he says.
"I've got to show my kids a work ethic. When I'm home, I'm home.
When I'm out here, I've got to get everything I can out of my
golf. That's what I'm here for."