It seemed strange to begin the 1979 professional golf tour in the nation's capital of white shoes, face-lifts and funny carts, but John Mahaffey managed to give it something of the same old look by the time the Bob Hope Desert Classic was over Sunday in Palm Springs. He won again. John Mahaffey has been winning tournaments ever since he took the PGA Championship in August. So now it must be noted that Mahaffey has not only escaped the oblivion he endured before he started his comeback last year but is fast on the way to becoming a "name," a fixture, one of those Tom Watson people. Mahaffey has won four of the last 10 tournaments he has played in, and if he doesn't watch out, he may get so rich he will have to move to Palm Springs and name a street after himself.
The Hope is not only the longest tournament of the year, stretching 90 holes from Wednesday through Sunday, but it is also contested over the most courses, four, and it has the most golfers wandering around, what with the 384 amateurs who for four of the five days join 128 pros who have to help them look for their putts. This year the Hope was the only tournament the PGA could persuade to accept the honor of starting off the season, the opener falling a week later than usual for a number of reasons having to do with the pro football playoffs and new TV arrangements. So, all in all, it was a peculiar feeling for the golf pros to be in Palm Springs, California in mid-January instead of in Arizona, where the winter tour had started off the past few years, or in Los Angeles, where it used to begin.
But it didn't seem to bother Mahaffey, who just kept on playing well, as if 1978 had never ended. You have to remember that Mahaffey not only won the PGA, after almost two years of looking as if he had forgotten the game and it had forgotten him, but also won at Pleasant Valley the following week. Seven starts later he took the World Cup individual championship in Hawaii. And now he has the Hope.
"I didn't come out here expecting this," he said. "I hadn't played any golf. But I guess nobody's played any golf."
Mahaffey led the Hope from the second round on. He had opened with a 66 on Wednesday but trailed Bob Murphy and Charles Coody, who had 65s. His second 66 on Thursday put him up front, and two consecutive 71s kept him there. Various challengers came and went, but it was Lee Trevino who emerged as his biggest worry.
Trevino was one of the few players who admitted he had been working at golf since the first of the year. He said he had learned to hit a draw and that he was putting like a fellow named Jack Nicklaus. And, indeed, it was Trevino who went out in the final round and. playing one hole in front of Mahaffey, made four big putts on the last nine at Indian Wells to reach the TV microphones first with a closing 69 and a 90-hole total of 344, or 16 under par. He had concluded with a 12-foot birdie putt that would force either a birdie out of Mahaffey or a playoff.
"I never won a tournament by backing off," Mahaffey said he reminded himself on the 18th tee. And so, in the shadows of the Santa Rosa Mountains, he went at the par-5 hole with a driver instead of playing it safe. This left him with a minor problem. He had to hit his second shot from a stance in a bunker. Which he did nicely enough, but he was still short of the green, with a pond in between. His pitch shot was designed first to clear the water, and after that to get as close as possible.
What Mahaffey left himself with was just about the same 12-foot birdie putt that Trevino had dropped. Mahaffey wasted no time. He looked very much like a man who knew it was destined to fall. Confidence does that. Winning does that.
"Outside of the playoff hole in the PGA, it was as good a putt as I ever hit," he said.
At Palm Springs there were those who felt it was easier for Mahaffey and Trevino to sink putts once the event had become a golf tournament instead of an amateur circus. The Hope amateurs are an amazing lot. Each year they combine to establish new records for white shoes and golf carts cleverly embellished with Rolls-Royce-style "radiators." They come from every part of the land and pay handsomely for the privilege of hanging around with the pros and show-biz types while fetching their Titleists out of palm trees and water hazards that have fountains in them.