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25 years ago, Larry Mize celebrated his chip-in to win the Masters

March 27, 2012 - 9:44 pm
Mize's wife, Bonnie, and son David, held by Mize's caddie, watched the green jacket ceremony in 1987.  FILE/STAFF
FILE/STAFF
Mize's wife, Bonnie, and son David, held by Mize's caddie, watched the green jacket ceremony in 1987.
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Larry Mize talks about the '87 Masters
By Chris Gay |

 

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Before he, wife Bon­nie and son Patrick began eating their plates of barbecue, Larry Mize practiced his deep Chris­­tian faith. He bowed his head and prayed.

Faith played a major part in Mize’s life before his golfing miracle in the early evening of Sunday, April 12, 1987. It remains at the core of Mize and his family.

“Golf is important,” he said, “but it’s behind my faith and my family.”

Twenty-five years have passed since the Augusta native’s improbable 100-foot chip-in won the Masters Tour­na­ment. Little has changed about Mize since he defeated the No. 1 and No. 3 players in the world, Greg Nor­man and Seve Balles­teros, in a sudden-death playoff.

Mize is 10 pounds lighter and wears size 33 pants, one size smaller than in 1987. His brown hair has turned gray. Yet he’s still the same humble man who enjoys playing basketball, working out and eating barbecue.

“Larry is one of the most genuine people you’ll ever meet,” said Jack Hudson, who has known his brother-in-law for three decades. “He’s just as good a person as I’ve ever been around.”

Mize is guided by his faith, and when he signs his autograph, Mize adds a Scripture verse.

“I just sign it hoping it’ll encourage somebody and they’ll look it up and it’ll help them in their life,” he said. “Maybe it’ll make them think spiritually and help them in some way.”

Mize likely would have been the same person had he never won the Masters. That’s something Bonnie Mize doesn’t like to think about. To this day, she still gets choked up thinking about the opportunity her husband seized in the final round.

Mize faced a five-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation. Had he missed, he would have joined a litany of golfers with close misses at winning the green jacket.

Mize began the round two shots behind. He birdied No. 13 to take the lead. He found the water at No. 15 for bogey. He entered the par-4 18th knowing he needed birdie.

As Mize studied his putt, a slight right-to-left breaker, Bonnie looked on with hope.

As the ball fell into the hole, Mize pumped his fist. The patrons rose to their feet, applauding the hometown hero. The Mizes were ushered to wait at Jones Cabin.

“If you make the putt, there are no regrets,” said Bonnie, pausing between tears. “At that point, it really didn’t matter to me whether he won the playoff or not, because he had made the putt.”

Early struggles

The putt didn’t just get him into the sudden-death playoff; it also eased his reputation as a young player with a smooth swing who often ran into trouble on Sundays. Despite winning his first PGA Tour event in 1983 at the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic, Mize couldn’t build any momentum.

He blew a four-shot, final-round lead at the 1985 Kemper Open, finishing second. The next year, Mize was primed to capture the Tournament Players Cham­pion­ship, setting the 54-hole record with a 16-under-par total. Despite holding a four-shot cushion on the back nine in the final round, Mize watched the lead slip away. He three-putted No. 18 for bogey to lose by one to John Mahaffey.

“That was one of my toughest losses,” Mize said. “I played bad and blew it coming in. It was lack of experience. I had to swallow it and chalk it up.”

In June 1986, Mize faced another
opportunity to win the Kemper Open. Holding a one-shot lead over Norman, Mize lipped out a 20-foot par putt on the final hole. Mize and Norman then engaged in a six-hole playoff. Norman won after Mize found water on the 18th hole.

Mize made his Augusta debut in 1984 and tied for 11th. A year later, he tied for 47th. In 1986, still smarting from the collapse at the Tournament Players Championship, Mize barely made the cut with rounds of 75 and 74. He improved slightly in the third round with 72, then posted his first sub-70 round at the Masters with a closing 65. That matched the day’s low score, by winner Jack Nicklaus, and vaulted Mize to a tie for 16th to secure his invitation for the following year.

Mize’s dream of playing against the best had long become a reality by the time he made his fourth Masters appearance in 1987.

Belonging

Lawrence Hogan Mize was born Sept. 23, 1958, at St. Joseph Hospital in Augusta to Charles Mize, a former Navy officer from Elberton, Ga., and Elizabeth Walton Mize, a descendant of George Walton, one of Georgia’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The Mizes bounced around the state during Larry’s childhood. Charles Mize worked for Southern Bell as a district manager, a job that required constant transfers. The Mizes lived in Atlanta, Macon and Savannah before returning in 1967 to Augusta for six years.

Young Larry developed his game at Augusta Country Club, the city’s oldest golf course. He would peek through the fence running along the right side of the ninth hole and look down at Augus­ta National, soaking in a prime view of the 11th and 12th greens and the 13th fairway – a perfect view of Amen Corner.

“There are drool marks on the fence where I used to look over,” Mize said. “I used to look over and dream of playing there.”

Mize worked the leaderboard at the third hole in the 1972 and 1973 Masters. It would be another decade before he played the course.

The Mizes moved to Colum­bus, Ga., for two years. Larry, a basketball player and golfer, met Bonnie Browder at Brook­stone School. They remained close after Mize’s family moved back to Augusta for his senior year of high school.

At Augusta Prep, Mize shot 2-over-par 74 – his average his senior year – to finish as medalist of the Region 4-B Championship at West Lake Country Club. With Mize’s score, Augusta Prep won its fifth consecutive region title.

Two weeks later, the Cava­liers had their best-ever showing (second place) in the state tournament at Bacon Park in Savannah.

Mize went to Geor­gia Tech, where he served as captain of the golf team during his sophomore and junior seasons. In 1978, he qualified for the NCAA Cham­pionship as an individual. In the Eugene, Ore., event, Mize shot 77-79-81, missing the 54-hole cut.

“It got worse every day,” he said. “I’m glad it stopped.”

Mize left school early to pursue a professional career. Though it was a questionable decision for a middle-of-the-road golfer, he did two things to elevate his game.

He met popular teacher Luke Barnes, who taught Mize to loosen his grip and take the left side of the fairway out of play.

Then, in the summer of 1980, Mize negotiated a deal with Fort Benning director of golf George Cliff, who allowed him to hit as many balls as he wanted after he picked up the driving range. Mize arrived every weekday at 6 a.m. for his job.

“I wanted a place where I could just practice,” he said. “I would pick up the range in the morning and then I’d beat balls and then I’d take a break in the heat of the day. I really did a lot of work. I hit a lot of balls. I really made some good improvement.”

Mize and his friend Duke Vaughan departed for the J.C. Goosie mini-tour in a motor home in the summer of 1981.

About 50 miles outside of Columbus, Mize turned to Vaughan and asked him to go to the back and listen for any strange noises. Vaughan returned to his seat, stating he had heard nothing. Mize’s fears were confirmed a short time later. A back tire flattened, causing the men to wait a little longer to pursue their dreams.

“My career was kind of like that flat tire,” Vaughan said.

The incident didn’t faze Mize. He gained valuable experience on the mini-tour circuit and earned his PGA Tour card at Q-School later in the year; Vaughan decided to settle down and got a job as a computer programmer.

Mize muddled along for most of 1982. His hopes of retaining his card rode on the final event of the season – the Walt Disney World Golf Classic. He tied for 11th for a season total of $28,787. He finished at No. 125 on the money list, edging John Fought by $191.

“The biggest thing when he made the top 125 was that he thought he belonged,” said friend Steve Liebler, a fellow PGA Tour rookie in 1982. “He accepted the fact he was one of the best players in the world.”

A prediction

The experience of being in contention often on the PGA Tour prepared Mize for the 1987 Masters. He was one of eight players in the field to shoot under par, with 70, in the wind-swept first round. Mize followed with rounds of 72-72 and trailed by two after 54 holes.

A mixture of top players, former champions and emerging stars was in the mix on the final day. Mize began the final round with Curtis Strange in the fourth-to-last pairing. Ballesteros and T.C. Chen would follow. Then, Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer would tee off. Co-leaders Ben Crenshaw and Roger Maltbie went off last at 2:15.

When the Mize family arrived at the course Sunday, Frank Carney was waiting. The head pro at Augusta Country Club from 1955-80, Carney was a private, introverted man. As Elizabeth Mize walked toward the first tee, Carney went over and delivered a prediction.

“Mrs. Mize,” Carney said, “I have a feeling Larry is going to win today.”

Mize made his move on the final nine. He birdied Nos. 12 and 13 to vault into the lead before a bogey at No. 14.

He was tied for the lead going to the par-5 15th. After he smashed his drive down the fairway, he faced an approach shot of 190 yards to the pin. Pumped from the adrenaline, Mize hit his downhill 6-iron shot flush. The ball slammed through the left side of the green, down the slope and into the pond at No. 16. Mize bogeyed the hole and fell to 2-under, one shot behind Crenshaw.

After posting a pair of steady pars, Mize striped his tee shot down the middle at No. 18, leaving an uphill approach of about 140 yards – a “big 9-iron,” Mize said – to the front left pin location.

He ripped his second shot, the ball landing in the middle of the green and catching the ridge. The ball trickled slowly toward the cup, settling five feet away.

The read was fairly basic: Aim right edge and hit it firm. Any other day, it would have been a simple putt.

“I was shaking in my boots,” Mize said.

He rolled in the birdie putt with confidence and walked off the green with a 3-under-par 285 total. Soon, Ballesteros joined him in Jones Cabin. After Norman narrowly missed a 20-foot birdie putt, he soon joined Ballesteros and Mize on the 10th tee.

The playoff

Mize was the decided underdog in the three-man playoff. Ballesteros was a two-time Masters champion, and Norman was the top-ranked player in the world.

“It obviously didn’t look good for me,” Mize said. “But with the birdie I made at 18 and how well I had played all week, I was nervous but I had a confidence about myself. I felt really good.”

Ballesteros three-putted the first playoff hole, the 10th, to bow out. The advantage shifted to Norman on the next hole when Mize’s approach to the 11th drifted right. Norman put his second shot on the fringe.

Famed writer Herbert War­ren Wind, of The New Yorker, watched the situation unfold from the press stands next to the green. In 1958, he had assigned the moniker “Amen Corner” to Nos. 11, 12 and 13, a daunting stretch where many green jackets have been won and lost.

Most of the writers thought Norman had one arm in the green jacket. Wind never counted out Mize, stating out loud to no one in particular that if he bounced his shot twice in the fringe he could make it.

“He answered the question in the air that everybody thought: ‘Can he make this shot?’ ” said Stephen Goodwin, who covered the tournament for GOLF magazine. “The fact that Wind sat there and described exactly how the shot needed to be played was pretty remarkable.”

A dispute continues about the distance of the chip shot. The Augusta Chronicle reported in 1987 and the year after that the shot was 100 feet. Other media outlets speculate the shot went in from 140 feet.

“Someone walked it off and said it was 100 feet rather than 140,” Mize said in a May 2011 interview. “But when someone said it was 140 that day, I said that’s fine. I don’t care. Whatever it is, it was well to the right.”

Mize selected his sand wedge and played the shot Wind described. When the ball disappeared into the cup, Mize flung his club into the air and ran around in disbelief.

When Norman failed to hole his third shot, Larry Mize was the Masters champion.

After a long evening filled with the green jacket ceremony, dinner on the grounds and media interviews, Mize continued the celebration at his parents’ house well into the night. When he awoke in the morning, he headed over to Fort Gordon for a scheduled clinic.

Bruce Harris, the commanding general of Fort Gordon, wasn’t sure Mize would show up. If he didn’t, all he could do was withhold the $3,000 payment. Harris relied on faith, and Mize delivered.

Mize arrived at the course at 9:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the start time, quashing any fears that the reigning Masters champion, 15 hours after slipping on the green jacket, wouldn’t show.

“If you think about it, would he have been so depressed had he not won it that he wouldn’t have shown up either?” Harris said. “We just didn’t know. He knew he had the arrangement. If he did, he did. If he didn’t, there wasn’t much we could do about it other than not pay him.”

Said Mize: “Everybody makes a big deal about that, but that was a no-brainer. You make a commitment, you honor it. I think it goes back to my upbringing. And my faith was involved with that. If you’re going to do something, you need to do it. It’s simple as that.”

Still approachable

Mize is the same humble man he was that day at Fort Gordon. During a practice session last year at Columbus Coun­try Club, Mize stood alone on the right side of the driving range. While he worked on hitting a draw, no one bothered him. When it was time to eat barbecue, he grabbed his bag and stuffed it into the back of his SUV. Before he left the course, he chatted with a pair of women in a golf cart.

Mize remains as approachable as ever. He has won nine professional events – four official PGA Tour tournaments, four unofficial events and one on the Champions Tour (the 2010 Montreal Championship).

Through the end of the 2011 season, Mize had earned more than $10.2 million on both tours. Since his Masters win, he has challenged twice for another green jacket, in 1992 when he finished tied for sixth and in 1994 when he placed third.

Though some people believed Mize would do more with his professional career after he won the Masters, others saw where he came from and how much he really did. Besides, he always kept God and family first.

“He really doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody,” Liebler said. “There were a lot of guys who were flashes in the pan who didn’t do as much as Larry.”

Mize continues to play on the Champions Tour. In February, he tied his career low with 62 at the ACE Group Classic.

When he plays in tournaments, he always packs a container with two crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – one for him and one for his caddie.

No one will remember Mize for what he eats. He will always be remembered for one gutsy, miraculous pitch shot.

“I remember thinking to myself that’s the kind of shot we’ll be talking about 25, 30 years from now,” said his brother-in-law Stan Lewallyn. “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”

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