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Michael Bamberger
April 21, 1997
Larry Mize is content with a life built on faith, family and a major moment
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April 21, 1997

Saving Grace

Larry Mize is content with a life built on faith, family and a major moment

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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 understandable.

"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 arc 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 develop."

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.

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