After 10 minutes of this I had run out of questions, Mitchell had run out of answers, and we both sat staring idly out the clubhouse window. Awkward silence filled the room. In the distance a solitary cricket began to chirr.
Then, in a spontaneous exhalation, Mitchell said, "I finished second to Jack Nicklaus in the '72 Masters." My jaw hit the table with an anvillike clang.
"The 12th hole at Augusta is a par-3," he went on, as Bob Martin closed my mouth manually. "I was six over for the tournament on that hole. Jack was two under on 12. So he beat me by eight shots on one hole, and I lost the tournament by three strokes."
Mitchell sipped his coffee dramatically and then continued to unburden himself. "I was on the Tour from '66 to '76," he said. "I won the Cleveland Open in '71 and the Tournament of Champions in '72. Beat Jack in a playoff in that one." I nodded dumbly, like a bobble-head doll.
"You probably didn't know," Mitchell added, "that I was tied with Arnold Palmer going into the final round of the '69 U.S. Open." I spat a spume of coffee across the table.
"Yes," Mitchell said, happily cleaning his glasses. "It was at the Champions Golf Club in Houston. I shot 66 in the third round. But in the final round I shot 77. Palmer shot 72 [and tied for sixth]. And I ended up"—Mitchell gestured grandly toward his immediate surroundings—"I ended up down the road." He wore the bemused smile of a badly sliced balata. It was a grin that said, Isn't life just too preposterous for words?
Indeed, after another moment's silence. Mitchell said precisely that. "Sixty-nine," he noted, "was the last year they gave a lifetime exemption for winning the U.S. Open. So winning that tournament or, of course, winning the Masters"—Mitchell paused dolefully as a mosquito alighted on his nose—"would have made a big difference in my life." Instead, at age 30, fresh from his second-to-Jack finish at Augusta, Mitchell saw his game implode in epic style. Picture a very tall building, dynamited by demolition experts, disappearing into dust. "I lost my confidence," he said.
He now spends his winter Mondays in the States playing Senior tour qualifying rounds (in which more than 100 men compete for four spots in that week's event), searching for the self-assurance he once had, ever so briefly, on the PGA Tour. "Golf is a game of confidence," he said again and again. But of course he had some words out of order. Golf is not a game of confidence. Rather, golf is a confidence game: It wins your affection, filches your money, then dumps your body down the road.
Way, way down the road. Which is how, a quarter century after narrowly losing two majors, Mitchell found himself giving lessons to a white-haired, red-nosed, free-swinging fat man on the Arctic Circle. "John Daly?" I ventured charitably, summoning the most exalted name that description would allow.