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 shot-making. "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 d�class�: blue shorts, ankle socks, a faded cap and a sweat-drenched white mesh shirt.
"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.
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 feet."
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 the win.