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Basic instinct
Alan Shipnuck
August 17, 1998
No-frills Billy Mayfair knew precisely what to do once he took the lead in the Buick Open
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August 17, 1998

Basic Instinct

No-frills Billy Mayfair knew precisely what to do once he took the lead in the Buick Open

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Billy Mayfair is the human equivalent of beige. On the golf course he displays all the charisma of Al Gore, and in conversation he can put you to sleep faster than a cup of warm milk. Of course, it is Mayfair's demeanor—unflappable may be the most polite way to describe it—that is his best attribute as a golfer. He has won four tournaments since the summer of 1995, mostly by remaining unmoved in crunch time and playing safe, boring golf while others go haywire around him.

Mayfair's flawless play at last week's Buick Open in suburban Detroit was typical, even if the rest of the week wasn't. Mayfair was wracked with the flu when he arrived at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club. He received a birthday serenade from the gallery during the first round, sent a woman to the hospital with a wayward seven-iron shot on Saturday, then capped a two-shot win over Scott Verplank with a misty-eyed speech on the 18th green. All this excitement from a guy who would proclaim on Sunday night that his favorite pastime outside of golf is playing with his two puppies. "When Billy gets around the lead, he doesn't falter," said Tiger Woods, who tied for fourth, four shots back. "He's solid." That's a word often invoked to describe Mayfair and his game.

Perhaps Mayfair has never bothered to acquire a personality because his resume has so much pizzazz. While at Arizona State he won the 1986 U.S. Public Links and the following year won the U.S. Amateur and the Fred Haskins Award, given to the nation's top college player. In 1990, only his second season on Tour, he finished a strong 12th on the money list. Three years later, at 27, he won his first tournament, the Greater Milwaukee Open.

Mayfair broke through in '95. Only Greg Norman finished higher on the money list, and Mayfair's two victories were monuments to his steady play. At the Western Open he made just one bogey over the final 40 holes and stiffed a seven-iron to the 72nd green for a birdie that broke a five-way tie. He closed his year with a victory at the Tour Championship.

In the next two years, though, Mayfair all but disappeared—not because he was a casualty of the excesses that often come with success but from an overabundance of his natural restraint. "After '95 people were expecting a lot of me, and I started trying to be a little too careful when I was playing," he says. In '96, Mayfair fell to 55th on the money list. Last year he was 79th and would have been much lower had he not tied for second in the season-ending Las Vegas Invitational. That $158,000 check more than doubled his earnings and put him on the road to recovery. "The thing that was missing the past two years was confidence," says Todd Rolfes, Mayfair's coach and occasional caddie.

Mayfair's constitution was tested earlier this year at the Nissan Open, in which he made a do-or-die birdie on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Woods. Even now the contrast between the two golfers can hardly be overstated. Mayfair turned 32 last Thursday, but with his lumpy physique and weathered complexion he looks at least 10 years older and, compared to the immaculately tailored Woods, seems to have slept in his clothes. At the Nissan, though, the final score was substance 1, style 0. On the first extra hole Woods took a mighty swing and whipsawed his ball into the cabbage, from which he was lucky to reach the green. Mayfair, meanwhile, bunted a drive down the middle and almost holed his approach shot. The painless birdie brought him the championship. "Between your ears is what's going to make you win or lose out here," says Mayfair. "It's pretty simple."

The next week at Doral, Mayfair tied for second, but in the following 11 tournaments, leading up to last week's, he finished no better than 31st, which he attributes to a spectacular putting slump. By the time he arrived at Warwick Hills, Mayfair was so desperate that he was packing a new putter, his first change of blades since he was a sophomore in college.

In the days before the tournament, Mayfair was as sick as his putting stroke. The flu kept him in bed on Aug. 4, and he was still weary during the opening round, but he nevertheless gutted out a 70. The highlight came at the 18th hole, where the large gallery sang Happy Birthday when he reached the green. By Friday, Mayfair was back to full strength, and he began to get the feel with his new putter, but a 69 still left him six shots back of the leader, Brandel Chamblee. On moving day, though, Mayfair relocated to the top of the leader board with a 65, the best round of a windy day.

Mayfair's only hiccup came on the 199-yard par-3 8th hole, where he jacked his tee shot long and left. Based on the way the ball sprang about 30 yards back across the green, Mayfair thought he had struck a tree. In fact, the ball had caromed off the noggin of an unfortunate spectator, who received six stitches. Upon reaching the scene, Mayfair tendered his apologies to the dazed and bleeding woman and gave her a ball as a souvenir. Understandably rattled, he failed to get up and down. Mayfair opened his postround press conference by saying, "My first concern is about the lady I hit. I feel really bad." Pause. "Other than that, it was a wonderful day."

Sunday was equally wondrous. Mayfair birdied the first two holes—out of a fairway bunker on the 1st and with a chip-in on the 2nd—to put some distance between himself and the pack, then played methodically as all the would-be contenders labored to generate momentum. Verplank came out of nowhere with a 64, but when he ran out of holes, he had only tied Mayfair for the lead, at 15 under, and Mayfair still had six holes to play. He birdied the 12th to regain the lead, and another birdie at the 14th ended the suspense. Same as at the Nissan, Mayfair played a bogey-free round despite the Sunday pressure. "Billy doesn't miss greens, he doesn't make mistakes, and he doesn't beat himself," says Steve Stricker, who faded to sixth while playing with Mayfair in the final pairing on Sunday.

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