It could only have happened at Oakmont, fabled old Oakmont, where golfing spirits live in the bunkers and greens and leap across the Pennsylvania Turnpike. You could scarcely find a more suitable place for the sport to produce its first three-way sudden-death playoff for a major championship and, perhaps even better still, have the PGA title wind up in the hands of John Mahaffey, a man who is held in great esteem by his fellow pros. Mahaffey has suffered for a very long time, having undergone broken bones, a broken ego and a broken marriage, and you will just have to excuse everyone in the game while they shed a tear of joy for him. In golf, it is one thing to be able to come back and simply earn a living. But it is quite another thing to fight your way back from absolute humiliation and desolation and beat up on Tom Watson and Jerry Pate, who are among golfing's elite.
Mahaffey won the PGA in the near-darkness of Oakmont on Sunday evening by curling in a 12-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole of the playoff with Watson and Pate. He sank the putt and then he dropped the club, raced across a border of the green, jumped into his caddie's arms and began shouting. A second later he was bounding into his wife Susie's arms, and then he was in everybody's arms, so much so that Watson had trouble reaching his old friend to congratulate him. If there was anyone to whom Watson did not mind losing this championship, it was John Mahaffey.
Watson had been among those who had consoled Mahaffey after he had lost the 1975 U.S. Open playoff at Medinah to Lou Graham, and after he had blown the 1976 Open to the same Jerry Pate at Atlanta. Tom and John drifted apart after Mahaffey's divorce in that year, and Watson's subsequent success. "It's unavoidable that you start living in different worlds on the tour when someone's doing O.K. and someone else isn't," Watson said. "But John's a great guy, and he won this tournament with style."
To get his misfortunes out of the way, Mahaffey began suffering in various other ways after he lost those two Opens. Mahaffey, who is now 30, had joined the tour in 1971 as another NCAA champion from the University of Houston's golf factory, and he quickly earned reputations as both a solid young player—even though he couldn't hit the ball very far—and the Rich Little of the double-knit crowd. In fact, some pros think that Mahaffey's comic imitation of Chi Chi Rodriguez' swing is even better than the real thing.
Mahaffey won the Sahara Invitational at Las Vegas in 1973 and finished that year in 12th place on the money list with $112,536. He won $122,189 in 1974 and $141,471 in 1975, but by 1977 he had slumped to 150th on the money list with winnings of only $9,847, barely enough money for caddie fees.
An injured elbow put Mahaffey on the sidelines in late 1976, and a broken thumb did it again in the spring of 1977. The divorce didn't help.
"I've made up my mind that I don't want to talk about the past," Mahaffey said Sunday night. "It's been a long, long road back, and all I can say is, this makes it worth everything that came before."
Among the good things that happened to Mahaffey on Sunday were about 150 feet worth of putts that dropped as he fired the five-under-par 66 that enabled him to catch Watson. After all, Mahaffey was a player who was not even thought to be in the tournament after beginning with a 75 on Thursday. Even following rounds of 67 and 68, he was seven strokes behind Watson, the leader, and two behind the second-place Pate with only 18 holes to play.
Mahaffey said, "Because it was a major championship, I honestly thought somebody had a chance to catch Tom, but I honestly didn't think it would be me."
Despite Mahaffey's birdies on Sunday from 15, 35 and eight feet at the 4th, 6th and 8th holes, respectively, it wouldn't have been him—or Pate or anybody else—if Watson hadn't staggered into a double bogey at the 10th hole. "The 10th hole was the key hole of the tournament," Watson said. "I don't care what else anyone did."