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Fresh Start
Michael Bamberger
June 14, 1999
A year ago at the U.S. Open, mild-mannered Jeff Maggert made a decision that changed his life and stunned the Tour
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June 14, 1999

Fresh Start

A year ago at the U.S. Open, mild-mannered Jeff Maggert made a decision that changed his life and stunned the Tour

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Once there was a good but dull golfer named Jeff Maggert. He grew up in The Woodlands, the massive planned community outside Houston, right on a golf course. He married his high school sweetheart, and they had two children. He was good at golf and he liked it, but he showed no particular passion for it. He exuded competence and nothing more. He didn't practice much. His career was uneventful. He joined the Tour in 1991. He left us last year, at the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Over those 7½ years, he played in 202 events, won one of them and finished second in a dozen others. He was the poster boy for the anonymous, check-cashing touring pro, courteous but dour.

Then at Olympic, a new golfer named Jeff Maggert was born. He made a move, off the course, that nobody saw coming. He told his wife of 12 years, Kelli, the mother of his children, that he wanted a divorce. Kelli Maggert was one of the most popular wives on Tour: cute, vivacious, outgoing. Everything the old Jeff Maggert was not. Everyone figured they were perfect together, that Kelli and Jeff were another example in the long tradition of opposites attracting. Divorce? Kelli was shocked. Jeff's parents were shocked. The Tour was shocked. "You should go to Las Vegas and set up a tent and sell tickets," Steve Elkington, a fellow Houstonian, told Maggert. "You fooled all of us. You're better than Siegfried and Roy."

The thing is, Jeff Maggert had been practicing not sleight of hand, but sleight of life. "There was this perception that everything was hunky-dory with us," says Maggert. "I took a certain pleasure in keeping part of my life private."

After Olympic, Maggert went public, and he has been doing unexpected things ever since. The first act in his new life was to start showing up at tournaments with his new girlfriend, 28-year-old Michelle Austin of Greensboro, N.C. In February, he won the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship—and its $1 million first prize—with Austin and her seven-year-old son, Phillip, in the gallery. Afterward, Maggert went out and bought several shirts for himself. Just drove out to the mall, took out his credit card and bought them. Nobody could ever remember Maggert buying shirts for himself before, but that's what he did. In April, he had Austin caddie for him at the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic. He spent the week making birdies and grinning like a schoolboy escorting a trophy prom date. A few weeks later, at the Houston Open, he asked Austin to marry him. On Tour, players and caddies and wives began asking, What's up with Maggert? What's he going to do next?

The likely answer is win the U.S. Open next week at Pinehurst. You could reach this conclusion on logic alone. He's about the straightest driver in golf. He's made himself into a superb chipper. He's the right age (35). There's no course or player or event that scares him. He's straight out of the Lee Janzen-Andy North-Scott Simpson mold. He has four top 10 finishes in the last five Opens. But to hell with logic. The reason he's likely to win the Open is because he's a new man. He's in love. His heart is young.

But don't confuse this with a happy story, not an entirely happy one, anyhow. Along with a fresh start, divorce, Maggert will tell you, creates hurt and grief, confusion and awkwardness. He is an expert in these areas. His parents were married when they were 18, in 1960, and they separated 30 years later, in 1990, the year Maggert led the Ben Hogan tour in earnings. When Maggert first learned that his parents were splitting up, he was angry with both of them. He wanted his parents' lives to be just like the lives of the parents he had seen on TV.

In the ensuing years, his thinking evolved. He saw his mother and father happier apart than they had been together. He began to wonder why they hadn't divorced much earlier. Then he realized that he and Kelli were repeating the pattern established by his parents. Kelli and Jeff were teenagers when they started going out, classmates at McCullough High in The Woodlands. "She was really cute," says Steve Jurgensen, who was at McCullough then and is now a Tour player. "He was a cool guy." The cute girl and the cool guy married when she was 21 and he was 22.

"At 16, two young people can't look each other in the eye and say, 'Yeah, I want to spend the rest of my life with you.' " Maggert said. He was sitting in a deserted dining room at the Kemper Open. He spent 3½ hours discussing his life. Afternoon turned into dusk and dusk turned into night. He never fidgeted, never even got up, just sipped a single Diet Coke. Occasionally, a player would come through—Billy Andrade, Mark O'Meara, Vijay Singh—but Maggert did not acknowledge them. He has few close friends on Tour. "When you're 16," he said, "you're mostly interested in physical attraction. I had the fantasy of getting married, having kids, living happily ever after. My parents married when they were young. My brother, the same. I was just going with the flow. Kelli and I had dated for a long time. Getting married was what you did next."

Maggert's not a man who reads much. He does not have a college degree. But he's capable of being profound. He's highly introspective and speaks like a man who has spent a lot of time alone. "The more I started thinking about my parents, the more I got to thinking about my own situation," Maggert said. "As a parent, you worry about your kids more than anything. The best thing you can do for your kids is be honest. It's important for kids to see parents in a happy marriage, and ours wasn't."

He and Kelli had gone to marriage counselors for years. Maggert says it helped him, but not the marriage. He praises Kelli as a homemaker and as a mother to their children, 10-year-old Matt and eight-year-old Macy. He assigns no blame to her for the failure of the marriage. The underlying problem, in his opinion, was both very simple and terribly complex. They couldn't talk.

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