This story first appeared in the April 20, 1987, issue of Sports Illustrated.
Of the dozens of ways Greg Norman could have lost the 1987 Masters Tournament, this had to be the unlikeliest: a 140-foot chip shot that bounced twice up a grassy bank and once on the putting surface before it rolled halfway across the 11th green directly into the hole. That this miracle shot was hit by 28-year-old Larry Mize, a local boy, no less, who had won only one tournament in his six years on the PGA Tour, and that it beat the luckless Norman, the premier player in the world, on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff, made it downright unbelievable.
Yes, it was more unbelievable than the 72nd-hole bunker shot that Bob Tway holed last August to beat Norman in the PGA. Yes, once-in-a-lifetime shots have now robbed Norman of apparent victory in the last two major championships.
It was indeed an unbelievable Sunday afternoon at Augusta National. Who, for instance, would have believed that Seve Ballesteros, the toughest head-to-head player alive, would drop out of the playoff with Mize and Norman by three-putting the first playoff hole? Or that as many as nine players would be bunched within a shot of each other with nine holes to play? Or that Ben Crenshaw, the ’84 champion, would hold the lead — or a share of it — for eight holes, scrambling heroically all the while, only to lose it by pulling an easy five-foot uphill putt for par at the 17th?
Norman was definitely not a believer. “I didn’t think Larry would get down in two, and I was right. He got down in one,” Norman said Sunday night. “This is probably the toughest loss I’ve ever had. The PGA was tough, but this one…because of the shot…I think I’m more disappointed now than in any tournament I’ve played.”
Sunday was a struggle for all concerned as the beautifully conditioned Augusta course — dried by a week of sun and wind, its greens as hard and fast as a purist could want them to be — took on all comers and fought them to a draw. Mize shot a 285 for 72 holes, and no eventual winner had scored that high since Jack Nicklaus’s 286 in 1972.
It is frequently said, frequently enough that the statement now goes unquestioned even by the players, that the Masters is always decided on the back nine on Sunday. This year’s tournament, however, didn’t begin to sort itself out until the 71st hole. Seventeen was the hole where Ballesteros and Norman both made the birdies that moved them into a tie for the lead at three under and where Crenshaw saw his chance for a second Masters championship slide by the hole. Mize had to wait for the 18th.
Mize had briefly led the tournament at the 13th, where he birdied to pull a shot ahead of Roger Maltbie and Crenshaw, but bogeys at the 14th and 15th had dropped him back to two under and into a tie with practically everybody. Mize was expected to make bogeys in such circumstances. What was not expected was that he would hit a perfect three-wood, a perfect nine-iron and a perfect six-foot putt for a perfect birdie on the 72nd hole of a tournament he was not supposed to figure in, much less win, to give him a share of the lead again.
Playing in the group behind Mize was Ballesteros, whose second shot at 18, an eight-iron from the middle of the fairway, caught the bunker to the right of the green. For anyone else a bunker shot onto the dangerous 18th green with a third Masters victory hanging in the balance would have been unsettling, to say the least. But Seve in sand is like Brer Rabbit in a brier patch: He’s home. Long before he ever played a real golf course, Ballesteros was hitting sand shots on the beach at Pedrena, the village on the shore of the Bay of Santander in the north of Spain that is still his home. The bunker shot stopped six feet away, the putt rolled dead into the heart of the cup, and Ballesteros’s share of the three-way tie was safe, for the moment.
The only player with a chance to spoil things was Norman, who tore into his tee shot at the 18th as if he intended to drive the green. The two-part bunker on the left side of the fairway, near the top of a long hill, was built in 1966 to discourage players, Nicklaus in particular, from driving to a plateau left of the fairway, about 280 yards off the tee (something only Nicklaus could do in those days), from where he would have an easy wedge shot to the green. On Sunday, Norman, who can hit a drive farther than Nicklaus could in his prime, merely gauged the distance to the far side of the bunker — 285 yards — and told his caddie, “I know we can hit over it.”
Norman did, and from there he had 91 yards to the green. On his previous Sunday at Augusta, a year ago, Norman was in the middle of the fairway and needed only to make a routine par to force a playoff with Nicklaus. But he flew his approach well into the crowd on the right and made a bogey. This time he hit a sand wedge to the green, leaving himself a 20-foot putt for a birdie that would win the tournament.
“I still don’t know how the putt stayed out,” Norman said an hour or so after he had watched his ball trickle over the left lip of the cup. “When it was about a foot, foot and a half out, I said to myself, Don’t say a word, because it’s going in. I just couldn’t believe it missed, nor could my caddie, Pete (Bender). He was just as taken aback as I was. But it was a good tournament, I suppose. We made it exciting again this year.”
Mize, who stirred the galleries to the verge of frenzy through the last regulation holes and the two holes of the playoff, was born in Augusta and played his junior golf on the course of Augusta National’s next-door neighbor, the Augusta Country Club. His father, a retired telephone company executive, took up golf at 35 and led his three children, of whom Larry is the youngest, into the game. “He was 13 when he first beat me,” says Charles Mize. “I shot 75 and he shot 74, and I haven’t beaten him since.” For Mize, golf was it. “Larry never had to mow the grass because he might get a blister that would affect his golf,” says Mize’s sister, Lisa, who was in his gallery Sunday, along with Larry’s wife, Bonnie, and their year-old son, David.
When Larry was 14 he got his first job, working the scoreboard at the third hole during Masters week. In those days Nicklaus was usually at or near the lead of the tournament and frequently played in one of the last pairings. As soon as the last group had finished playing No. 3, Mize would hop down off the scoreboard and follow Nicklaus through the remainder of his round.
After three years at Georgia Tech, Mize quit college to turn pro and join the Tour, something he had wanted to do since the age of 10. He won his first tournament, the Danny Thomas-Memphis Classic, in 1983, his second year on the Tour, and has improved each year. Last year he came close to winning three times, including the Kemper Open, where Norman caught him and then beat him on the sixth playoff hole.
Of his second win as a professional, Mize said, “I picked a doozy.” Of his childhood at Augusta National’s back door, he said, “Peeking through the fence is about as close as I got.” Of leaving college without a degree, he said, “I was a stupid little kid.” And finally, when asked if he was trying to hole his now historic chip shot or merely trying to get it close, he said, “Both…. But when you’re playing somebody like Greg Norman, you can’t be trying to make pars.”
Mize, it seems, is the boy next door who knows when to go for the jugular.
Nicklaus’s spectacular victory last April was a tough act to follow, but the 1987 Masters turned out to be a worthy successor, producing the 16th different winner in as many major championships. As Robert Trent Jones Jr. the golf course architect, said after watching the finish, “You know, you just can’t get cynical about the Masters.”
As the tournament began, it appeared as if the greens might end up winning. Dry weather, warm, sunny days and the late-afternoon wind contributed to the treacherous condition of the putting surfaces. In an effort to bring the speed of the greens back to what it was 20 years ago, Augusta National had switched from Bermuda to bent grass in 1980. But it wasn’t until this year that the greens had the right combination of firmness and hardness, thanks in no small part to the magic of new greens superintendent Paul Latshaw. His previous job was at Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, a course with notoriously fast greens.
On Thursday players were stumbling in off the course hollow-eyed, like survivors of a natural disaster. John Cook’s three-under-par 69 was the low score of the day, due, no doubt, to the fact that he played early, before the wind came up and dried the greens even more. Only 13 of the 85 players in the field shot par or better, including Mize at 70.
The greens were hand-watered following Thursday’s round — “just enough to keep (the grass) from dying,” said an official — and scoring improved somewhat. Maltbie shot a 66 for the low round on Friday, and Norman matched that on Saturday. By Sunday, however, continued dry weather and gusting winds had firmed the greens almost to the ferocity of the first day. So it was more than coincidence that the leaders included the game’s best putters — Crenshaw, Norman and Ballesteros.
Even when Ballesteros doesn’t win, he is a memorable presence. On Friday, for instance, he played the par-5 8th hole as it had probably never been played. The 8th is a 535-yard monster that runs up a long, steep hill before dog-legging left to a green surrounded by enormous mounds. To the left, coming the opposite direction along the same steep hill, is the fairway of the par-5 2nd hole. That day Ballesteros pulled his drive through the trees that separate the two fairways, the ball ending up on the 2nd fairway. Instead of trying to beat his way back through the woods to the 8th fairway, Ballesteros whacked a four-iron 170 yards farther up the 2nd fairway to a position separated from the 8th green by 175 yards, a healthy stand of Georgia pines and a massive scoreboard. From there his towering five-iron shot over trees and scoreboard left him a few feet off the putting surface and 30 feet or so from the pin. “It was almost a good shot,” he said, amused at his own presumption.
Alas, he bungled the chip and ended up with a bogey 6, but he had created one more gem for collectors of Ballesterosiana. If he never wins another major, Ballesteros will still be a legend for the joyful sort of game he plays. He glowers and grimaces and mutters imprecations in Spanish, but he is wonderful to watch.
Norman rarely glowers, seldom grimaces and seems to be having a good time even while he is going about the very serious business of winning, or nearly winning, major tournaments; of the last five majors, Norman has won one (the British Open), lost two by a single stroke, another by two strokes, and the U.S. Open by six shots after having led through three rounds.
On Friday night the promoters of the Australian Masters threw an Aussie barbecue. “They flew in a sheep and 1,500 bottles of Swan,” said Laura Norman, Greg’s wife. “He had a good time with all his mates and it relaxed him.” The next day Norman shot a 66 that propelled him into the hunt after opening rounds of 73 and 74.
Asked Sunday evening how it felt to have lost successive majors to extraordinary finishing shots, Norman said, “You wonder when it will change. You feel as if you’ve got to fight for everything yourself, that nothing ever comes your way, as if they’d never give it to you. I’ve holed 10-, 15-, 20-foot putts to win, but not bunker shots or chip shots from 140 feet. I couldn’t believe it. I saw the ball rolling in and thought, Well, if it misses it’ll probably go four or five feet by. I was just watching for the speed of the green, and I watched, and then the closer it got to the hole the more it looked like it was going in, and then—oh my God.”
Yet minutes later Norman had the painful experience all worked out to his mind’s satisfaction. “As long as you get yourself into contention, where if these things happen…at least you were there. You were part of that history. You made it happen, in a way. If I didn’t birdie 17, I would not have been involved for Larry to do that.”
Larry Mize is now part of that history, too. The hometown hero never played Augusta National when he was growing up because, he says, the Masters meant so much to him that he wanted to “earn” his way onto the course. On Sunday the former keeper of the scoreboard earned himself a lifetime pass.