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 Double Tree. 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.