Buoyancy is not a word associated with golf, but John Mahaffey
looked lighter than his 152 pounds last week. Hitting practice
balls near his home in the Woodlands, Texas, the once-prominent
touring pro provided an upbeat commentary to his own shotmaking.
"This could be a clinic," he said, changing trajectories at will
with a pitching wedge and sticking shot after shot near the pin.
Mid-irons? Mahaffey launched a tight draw at a more distant flag
and watched the ball drop in the center of the green. "Take
that, Hale Irwin!"
"Don't you think John's ready?" asked Dave Yepson, his friend of
20 years. Almost. Mahaffey's outfit looked a little declasse:
blue shorts, ankle socks, a faded cap and a sweat-drenched white
"I don't think the mesh look is in," Mahaffey conceded, rolling
another ball into place with his club. "Only if I had a ponytail
and a tattoo would I wear this shirt on the Senior tour."
You are reminded that Mahaffey was a pretty funny guy back in
the '70s, when his name often rode the leader board at major
championships. He did wicked impressions of Chi Chi Rodriguez
and Gary Player. In the PGA Tour guide he listed his hobbies as
calligraphy and recreational bull riding "just to see if anybody
was paying attention." But then his life got out of control.
Mahaffey drank too much and got married a little too often--his
current wife, Denise, is his third--and everything off the
course took a toll on his game. He wound up in PEOPLE magazine
under the headline HARD LUCK GOLFER. And this was before he
learned that his business manager was embezzling from him.
May 17, 1998
So it was fascinating to watch Mahaffey last week, a few days
shy of his 50th birthday (May 9). He seemed confident,
energized. His A wardrobe, consisting mostly of conservative
polo shirts and pressed slacks, was laid out for packing in the
bedroom of his small rental house. On Sunday he was to fly to
Kansas City for this week's St. Luke's Classic--his first
tournament as a member of the Senior PGA Tour. "It's astonishing
and it's wonderful," he says, referring to the peculiar
opportunity Senior golf offers to middle-aged men who still have
something to prove. "I feel like a rookie again."
Mahaffey's arrival, while not the stuff of press releases and
tour hype, will not go unnoticed by Irwin, Gil Morgan and the
other top money winners on the Senior tour. They know that
Mahaffey can win. They remember the 1978 PGA Championship, which
Mahaffey won by making a birdie putt on the second hole of
sudden death. They remember his victory in the 1986 Tournament
Players Championship. If they're statistically savvy, they know
that he won eight other Tour events and almost $4 million before
sputtering out in his 40s.
They will also notice that Mahaffey is now a more focused,
better prepared golfer. Since winter he has been training like
an Olympian, working out daily and devoting hours to his
chipping and putting--skills he once neglected. "I used to hit
thousands of drivers and two-irons," he says. "Now I spend 80
percent of my time on the short game, and I'm much, much better
than I was."
That should concern the Seniors. The 1970 NCAA champion from
Houston might have won more majors if his touch around the
greens had been as good as his ball striking and Hoganesque
course management. For a few years in the '70s, Mahaffey looked
as if he might race Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson and
Tom Weiskopf for player of the decade honors. Mahaffey remembers
playing Wile E. Coyote to Miller's Roadrunner at the 1975 Tucson
Open. "I think I birdied five out of the first seven on the last
day, but Johnny birdied six out of the first seven. Then I
birdied 11, and he eagled it. I said, 'That's it, baby, it's
yours.'" Mahaffey lost the '75 U.S. Open to Lou Graham in a
playoff and finished fourth in the '76 Open after splashing his
approach in the water on the final hole as he tried to overtake
leader Jerry Pate.
"I would do that again," Mahaffey says of his ill-fated finish
in '76. "It was a chance I had to take." What made the 215-yard
shot chancy was Mahaffey's lie, which cried out for a club that
had not yet been invented--a metal four-wood with railers. "I
had to cut it out of there with a three-wood because I couldn't
get a two- or three-iron on it." He smiles. "Not that it made
that big a difference after Jerry hit that five-iron in there to
Two years later, at Pittsburgh's rain-soaked Oakmont Country
Club, Mahaffey came from seven strokes back in the final round
of the PGA with a 66 to catch Pate and the third-round leader,
Watson. Mahaffey then sank a scary 12-footer in the playoff for
Not surprisingly, that putt holds a prominent spot in Mahaffey's
memory. "Everybody who's played Oakmont knows the 2nd hole has
probably the fastest green in the country, especially coming
down the hill when the pin is tucked in the left corner," he
says. "You could put a bucket of balls down there and maybe not
make it. It was just my time. That happens."
However, it wasn't fate but rather alcohol and injuries that
sidetracked Mahaffey. He once fell off a ladder and broke his
thumb--a minor but telling accident--and by 1982 he had dropped
to 57th on the money list. Switching from booze to soft drinks
stopped his free fall, and within three years Mahaffey was
winning again and back in the top 10.
That made his next decline even more painful. In the early '90s
friends and family began raising questions about Richard
Marshall, Mahaffey's agent. For 25 years the golfer had put his
earnings in Marshall's hands, and apparently the Houston
businessman treated it like Monopoly money. Mahaffey sued, and
in August 1996 a Texas district court judge ruled that Marshall
was guilty of fraud, theft, embezzlement, gross negligence and
breach of fiduciary duties, ordering him to pay Mahaffey $32.5
million in civil damages.
"Five years of pure hell" is how Mahaffey describes the process.
"'Please call your lawyer' or 'What were you doing the date of
August such and such?' It put pressure on my family life and
pressure on my game." Mahaffey lost 35 pounds to stress, and his
golf got about as bad as your average lawyer's. In 1996 he won
only $30,000 on the Tour. Last year, with the judgment behind
him, he was a happier golfer, though he made only one cut in 21
tournaments and earned a mere $2,850--pathetic for a player with
105 top 10 finishes.
Is Mahaffey bitter? "I'm not as bitter," he says while enjoying
dinner and a diet drink at the Woodlands Country Club. "I could
have wallowed in sorrow and self-pity--and I did for a little
while--but it's time to pick myself up and dust myself off." He
finds it faintly amusing that strangers think he has $32.5
million in the bank to share with his wife, Denise; their
five-year-old daughter, Meagan; and nine-year-old John, his son
from marriage number two. "Nothing could be further from the
truth," Mahaffey says. "The case is being appealed." Asked if he
expects to ever see a penny of the judgment, he shrugs. "I
honestly don't know," he says.
Mahaffey stands a better chance of collecting on the Senior
tour. In March he traveled to California for two months of
spring training, meeting every Friday with training guru Adrian
Crook. (Says Yepson, "John can now stand on one foot and put his
other foot over his head.") More recently, Mahaffey tested his
game in two regular Tour events, making the cut in both and
winning about $8,000. He was particularly heartened by his
final-round 69 in the Shell Houston Open two weeks ago. "That's
the highest I could have shot," he says. "I hit 18 greens,
missed one fairway and played in two hours and 10 minutes. It
A good example of his improved focus came the day before, when
Mahaffey double-bogeyed the last hole by blading his shot from a
greenside bunker. After signing his scorecard, he marched
straight to the range, emptied a bucket of balls into the
practice bunker and replayed the shot until he was satisfied
with his technique. "That's my new philosophy," he says. "Let's
figure out how to do this."
Former PGA and U.S. Open champion Larry Nelson, eight months
into his own Senior tour adventure, thinks that Mahaffey is
preparing properly. "There are certain-type games that fit more
than others out here," says Nelson. "For the most part, you
really need to be a good putter and a good wedge player. You
have to take advantage of the shorter par-4s."
That's why Mahaffey spent the bulk of his practice time last
Thursday on 20-foot chip shots, polishing a technique he learned
recently from a friend, Joe Patterson. "I used to have such a
death grip on the club that I was lucky to get my ball on the
green," Mahaffey said, deftly popping shots at the hole. "Now
I'm very relaxed. I'd almost rather be chipping than putting
from this distance." Smiling, he added, "It's a shame not to
find this out until you're almost 50 years old."
Mahaffey has always been a slow learner. He still smokes
compulsively, but he watches his carbohydrates and drinks
nothing harder than diet cola. "John had some negatives off the
course," says Senior pro Dave Stockton, "but I think he's more
dedicated now. He was always a good striker of the ball."
The Senior tour's galleries will have plenty of opportunities to
see if Mahaffey can cut the mustard. He left Houston expecting
to play eight straight tournaments--nine if he qualifies for the
Senior Players Championship. "I may play them all," he says,
every geezer gala between now and Christmas.
Noting the quizzical look of his interviewer, Mahaffey says, "I
want to. I feel that good about golf and about life."
He sounded like a man who does not intend to be cheated again.
"I want to [play every week]," says Mahaffey. "I feel that good
about golf and about life."