On this sun-drenched Florida Sunday, Larry Mize has his nose over a three-foot putt and his mind on a career that got away. He was up five shots with 12 holes to go in the Tournament Players Championship, but now, standing on the 18th green, he needs this putt to remain tied—with 45,000 people there and God knows how many at home waiting to see who will fail, he or John Mahaffey, who has his own three-footer to make. The stakes are the $162,000 winner's check, and a precious 10-year exemption from qualifying.
And now as Mize, 27, steps up to the putt, both history and his card whisper his de-Mize. Hadn't he blown a four-shot lead with nine holes to play at the Kemper Open in 1985, and hadn't he led by a stroke going into the final round earlier this year at San Diego and shot 75? Today he has made bogey, bogey, par on the last three holes; two misses from two yards or less. All he wants in the world is for these final three feet to surrender without incident.
Mahaffey, 37, isn't a picture of nonchalance, either. He has needed a few Heimlich maneuvers in his time. He lost the '75 Open at Medinah in a playoff; then led in 1976 at Atlanta and bogeyed the last three holes to lose. He redeemed himself in '78 when he beat Tom Watson and Jerry Pate in sudden death at Oakmont to win the PGA, then slowly faded from the picture.
But two years ago Mahaffey gave up drinking and smoking and took up dedication, which made him less fun but richer. "I just didn't care before," he said. "Then one day I realized I was starting to lose everything I had. Guys that I used to be able to beat were beating me. I had let years go by without trying to improve myself. I realized I had better turn my life around."
Last year he finished in the Top 10 on the money list for the first time in 10 years. Yet he still didn't feel whole. He had promised himself a biggie—he hadn't won a biggie in eight years. So now, as he faces his putt, three lousy feet of bent grass may challenge him to take one, Sucker.
Standing off the green is PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Be-man, who is not playing but is nonetheless about even par for the tournament, which, for Beman these days, is a banner week. The good news is that a caddie isn't going to win.
No, this time the TPC leader board carried such luminaries as Brett Upper (who finished fourth) and Dave Rummells (10th), who shot 65 the second day and credited his torrid performance to the Dakotas tour. "Gah," said Rummells, who is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where they say "gah" a lot, "the money in the Dakotas was unbelievable." He used his new fame to give the world the skinny (he is 6 feet, 150) on himself.
Likes: Golf. "I played 52 straight weeks last year."
Dislikes: The tour's big names. "They aren't very friendly. They're all in their own little world. They don't care about anybody but themselves."
By Saturday, Rummells didn't have to worry. The "fifth major" (as Jacksonville realtors like to call the TPC) was missing some really big names: Nicklaus, Zoeller, Peete, Irwin, Stadler and Strange. For this, Beman should give himself a two-stroke penalty. He sent those luminaries off in a cosmic clump Thursday morning so that they would be playing in the afternoon on Friday and would be seen on the USA Cable telecast. (Is this an admission by the commish that the tour really does need superstars?) Alas, the wind came up hard that afternoon and blew the big boys out of the event. The TPC had loaded all its eggs in one big Easter basket and then dropped the basket.