1987 Masters revisited: 30 years later, catching up with the stars who lived it

April 4, 2016

The 1987 Masters had everything. A hometown boy in Larry Mize, world-class stars in Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros and a playoff to win the green jacket. Oh, and don’t forget one of the most iconic shots and celebrations in tournament history. Thirty years later, relive one of the greatest Masters ever with those who lived it.

This is my new favorite golf trivia question:

Who was the 54-hole leader at the 1987 Masters Tournament (the one in which Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman in a playoff)?

Helpful hint 1: You’ll never guess. (Well, taunting is not a tip. Bad form. I apologize.)

Helpful hint 2: He was actually the 54-hole co-leader with Ben Crenshaw and played in Sunday’s final twosome.

Helpful hint 3: He was also the 36-hole leader at Turnberry when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson had their Duel In the Sun at the 1977 British Open.

Helpful hint 4: He’s been a TV golf analyst for more than two decades.

Helpful hint 5: He won five PGA Tour titles, was fond of cocktails and his legend includes the time he won the 1975 Pleasant Valley Classic and lost his $40,000 winner’s check at a local bar that evening. The tournament cut him a second check and when the first one was later found among the bar’s floor sweepings, the bar owners framed it and hung it up.

Give up? Meet Roger Maltbie, a darned good player in his day—He won the first Memorial Tournament, by the way, in a playoff with Hale Irwin!—whose skills get overlooked because he’s spent 20-plus years with NBC offering insight, clever remarks and cracking jokes during telecasts. Maltbie is a master story-teller, veteran cigarette sneaker and cocktail imbiber and with his quick smile and round-belly form, should be a first-round draft-choice if you could pick any TV talking head to fill out your foursome.

In the pursuit of Masters history, I asked Roger to relive his 1987 brush with a green jacket. He was gracious enough to agree… and only one cigarette was harmed during the making of this interview.

Van Sickle: I looked it up, you shot 76 in the opening round in ‘87. What happened?

Maltbie: I played late the first day. It was a breezy afternoon and the greens were very firm that year. I actually played OK, the course just really played hard. I mean, really hard. Friday was a mirror image of Thursday but I went out early because they re-paired you by score. I shot 66 Friday morning, which ended up being low round of the tournament. I went from the bottom of the heap to the top. I didn’t know the round would be that good.

You shot 70 in the third round. Didn’t you famously birdie the ninth hole from the first fairway?

That’s true. I was playing with Curtis Strange. At nine, I hit a rip-hook off the tee and thought, Aw, geez! Somehow it got through all those pines and made it to the first fairway and I had a shot. The pin was tucked on the left. I hit the most unbelievable shot from over there.

How did you even get a yardage for that?

Well, we were just guessing. That’s what you did then. I didn’t have Creamy Carolon on the bag—that was Arnold Palmer’s old Masters caddie. He had yardages to every hole in Augusta from six different fairways–everywhere. We just estimated.

What did you hit?

I think 6-iron. I hit it pretty close, like 12 feet. It was a great shot and I got fortunate. What can I tell you?

What was it like knowing you were in the final twosome on Sunday?

It was a night of little sleep.

I thought I read a post-third round story where you said you’d sleep well because you were going to enjoy a few cocktails.

Well, I did do that but it didn’t quite work out that way. We had a big house rented for the week, and we had a lot of fun. It was busy that night. My parents didn’t make the trip and the one thing I remember—I get choked up every time I tell this story. It’s Sunday morning, I’ve got all day to wait because I’ve got the last tee time, I can’t wait to get going. My wife said, “Call your dad.” So I gave him a call and he said, “I want you to know something. I couldn’t be any more proud of you than I am right now, anyway, so what you shoot today doesn’t make a difference.” I went into the bedroom and cried like a baby for 15 minutes. After that, I was fine. He just wanted me to know he loved me and he believed in me. Actually, I never had any nerves past that. It was like I purged myself with that big cry.

What was the media hoopla like then? Did you have to do a lot of TV stuff after the third round?

No, because everybody was interested in Greg Norman. He’d just shot 66 and he’d done his press thing before I did. So the focus wasn’t on me, it was on him and Crenshaw and Seve Ballesteros. I can’t remember the exact question in the press conference but somebody made reference to Norman being so near the lead and that kind of upset me. I took a little offense and said, Wait a second, if I shoot 68, he’s got to shoot 65. I like my chances. It’s all just math, fellas.

How did it feel to play with the lead?

It was great. I went out with Crenshaw, who hit it all over God’s green earth and made every putt he looked at. I birdied the eighth hole to take the lead. I went to the 10th tee and you know all that stuff they say about the Masters not starting until the back nine on Sunday? They ain’t lyin’. I got there and all of a sudden, there wasn’t any oxygen. It was right then that the weight of the Masters hit me.

How did the back nine go?

 I bogeyed number 10, hit a good shot in that went off the left side of the green, played a so-so chip and missed a five-footer for par. At 11, I drove it in the fairway. You know those green sand-filled divots they have there? Well, my right foot was in one of them and my foot slipped during the swing on my approach shot. So I made another bogey there. I parred 12 and then didn’t birdie 13. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds because scores were high. The winning score was only three under par.

So you were still in it?

Yeah but at 14, I’ve got 15 feet for birdie and I run it four feet past and miss that. Then I parred 15 and 16 and made a huge birdie at 17.

So you and Crenshaw come to the 18th hole and you’re one shot back, you’ve got to make a birdie to get in a playoff with Mize, Norman and Seve Ballesteros?

That’s right. All three of them were in the house at three under. I don’t remember how Ben played 18. I hit a great tee shot in the middle of the fairway and had a 6-iron in. The pin was front left behind the bunker like it always is. The way to get close was to use the slope behind the pin and let it roll back. I made a swing on that second shot that was as good as any I’ve ever made. I hit this thing as well as any shot I’ve ever hit, certainly given the situation. I’m waiting for the gallery’s reaction, and I hear this “Unnnh…” The shot hit the green, jumped to the top tier and stayed there. I knew where it was by the reaction. If it had rolled back, I would’ve heard a reaction getting louder and louder and I would’ve at least had a putt to throw up on to get in the playoff. 

So now I’m standing there and thinking, I’ve watched this tournament since I was little and nobody has ever made this putt down the slope. That’s what went through my head: nobody makes this putt. I two-putted for par.

What happened afterward?

I remember walking off the green and signing my card. Eventually, I’m back by the oak tree in front of the clubhouse with a group of writers asking me questions. I’m talking to these writers when Seve suddenly walks past and all of the writers go with him with me practically in mid-sentence. I’m there by myself. I didn’t know then that he’d just three-putted the 10th green and was out of the playoff. I just know that the writers chased after him and I heard him going, “I say no-theen. I no feel so good right now.” He was really pissed. So then I went into the clubhouse, looked up at the TV and saw Larry chip-in and I’m like, Geezus!

Did conditions that week play into your game?

Maltbie: I wasn’t a power player. I wasn’t going to overpower the par 5s. I grew up on very fast, slopey greens so I enjoy that. If there was a strength in my game, it was middle-iron play. I always liked playing there, I finished top 10 in my first Masters, I had some decent finishes. But of course that was my one chance to win and it didn’t happen. There aren’t many guys who walk up the 72nd hole with a chance to win the Masters.

I was 34 at the time and I had been on a good stretch of play for about three years. You think, There will be another opportunity. As it turned out, I hurt my left shoulder a couple of years later and there wasn’t another opportunity. I didn’t beat myself up—I replayed a few things in my head but as I got older, I’d think, You had a shot at it. There’s a couple ways to look at it. Either you didn’t get something accomplished that you think you could have or, I was a pretty good player but maybe I wasn’t quite good enough for that level, major championships. And the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

You can look back at the birdie at the 71st hole and remember how you came through when it counted.

 I can tell you that final nine, I was alive, you know? There was a pulse. You’re hyper-aware, hyper-focused, hyper-sensitive, all in a good way. You’re really playing with a purpose with nine holes to go. It was a great experience.

That feeling has to be one of the things you missed after you quit competing.

Sure. I spent my whole life trying to get to that moment and play golf to the best of my ability, whatever that was. I never spent a minute thinking about getting into television. It never crossed my mind. It just kind of happened. I remember talking to my wife, who didn’t want me to quit golf. I’d turned NBC down once.

Then I had a second shoulder operation and they asked again, so then it was a much more viable option. I told her, I think it’s time. I’m 40 and I said, Look, I’m the one who started this. It was my dream, my whole life and I’ll be the one who says when it’s over. And it’s over. If I was going to be the next Jack Nicklaus, I’d have gotten that done by now.

You had five wins and put yourself in a position to win a few majors. How many guys can say that?

I think my peers viewed me as a good enough player that if my name got on the leaderboard, they knew I might go the other way but they also knew I had the guts to do it and that’s important. Once I started doing live television, I found that it’s similar to championship golf. When the call comes to you, you’ve got one chance. There ain’t no mulligan, there ain’t no, ‘Rick, give me another one.’ You’ve got to do it at that moment. When you do it right and the words tumble out the right way and you think something might happen and it happens, there’s a satisfaction like you just flushed one. And when you screw up, and you will, you better get over it and move on or you’ll make another screw-up right behind it.

Have you ever been back to Augusta during tournament week?

Not during tournament week. It was always at the end of NBC’s big stretch of telecasts. When my kids were little, my wife said, You’re not doing that. I said, They’re throwing money away at guys like me there that week. But I never did it, I wanted to go home. I did go back to the course once on an invitation from Walter Driver and Fred Ridley and once on an invite from Fred Taylor. I just played golf with friends and spent the night in the cabin. It was great but it was melancholy, too. Your mind drifts to what if…?

Have you ever owned a green sportscoat, like something from a SteinMart?

No. I did look at some old videotape, though. CBS showed Ben a lot during that final round and me not nearly as much. Once I bogeyed 10 and 11, I kind of went away on TV. After I birdied 17, they showed me playing 18. It was a great week, a terrific week.

How long have you been doing TV golf?

I’ve fooled ‘em for 26 years.

Well, stick with it. It may still work out.

(Laughing) Thanks.


Which was more improbable?

One, That a youngster who worked several Masters Tournaments changing the numbers on the leaderboards would one day play in a Masters.

Two, That a youngster who grew up in Augusta would one day put on the winner’s green jacket.

Three, That the youngster, Larry Mize, would beat superstars Seve Balleteros and Greg Norman in a playoff.

Four, That Mize would win a Masters in sudden death by dramatically and unexpectedly holing a 40-yard pitch.

No matter how you slice it, Mize’s 1987 Masters victory was as memorable as any in the last 50 years. Mize, 58, won four times on the PGA Tour and four other times worldwide. He was known for his iron play, his short game and his putting, not to mention his nice-guy, humble personality.

Starting with the sentimental Nicklaus victory in 1986 and concluding with Nick Faldo’s playoff win over Raymond Floyd in 1990, the Masters may have had the greatest five-year run of thrilling finishes in major championship history. None were more stunning than the one by Mize, who hit what one punster later called The Shot That Whirled ‘Round the Herd…

Van Sickle: It’s hard for most of us to remember anything else about the ’87 Masters except your chip-in on the second playoff hole. It was so big, it almost blotted out the sun—plus my memory.

Mize: It’s funny how many people forget that Seve Ballesteros was in the playoff with Greg Norman and I.

They also forget that Roger Maltbie was the 54-hole co-leader with Ben Crenshaw.

Roger was a heck of a player. He wore it out that year at the World Series where he blew everybody away. Nobody remembers how good he was because he’s so funny on TV.

What do you recall about your opening-round 70 in ‘87?

I played with John Cook the first day and he shot 69, so we played again the next day, too. They paired you by score. I remember the pin on 18 was up top and I was down below and I made a long birdie putt to shoot two under.

Are you serious? I’ve never seen anyone hole a putt from down there.

It’s funny, I birdied 18 again on Saturday and Sunday. I don’t remember if I birdied it Friday, too. That hole isn’t that easy.

Was there anything notable about your second-round 72?

The greens were so hard and fast that week. Three under par won. Cookie (John Cook) and I were standing on the fourth tee waiting to hit. We watched as the grounds crew hand-watered the third green right below us. The greens had this bluish tint and the water wasn’t even soaking in. It seemed like water running off the hood of a waxed car. We looked at each other like, Oh my goodness!

You shot a pretty good 72 on Saturday, right?

Yes, that was a big momentum shift. I was two over par going to 12 and I hit it in the water there. I dropped, hit a pitch to 10 feet and made the putt for bogey. That was huge. Now I’m three over for the day. Then I birdied 13 and another hole—honestly, I don’t remember which one–and then 18 to get back to even par. Playing the last six holes in three under par was a big momentum shift and confidence boost.

Wow, that’s quite a comeback. So you start Sunday two shots behind Maltbie and Crenshaw but big names like Norman and Seve and Bernhard Langer were playing right behind you. What was that like?

There were so many players in the mix, all you could do was focus on your own game. I vividly remember Sunday. I birdied 12 and 13 to take the lead in the Masters. At 14, I hit it long and it wasn’t a hard up and down. But I pitched it long and missed a five-footer for par, which was tough. So now I’m tied for the lead. At 15, I ripped a drive, I had 4-iron in there from 190 yards. I couldn’t make myself pull a 5-iron, I wish I had. I played too aggressive. I pulled the shot with the 4-iron, which makes you hit it farther, and I flew the green. My ball hit the downslope and ran all the way into the water on 16. So now I’m dropping back there and pitching up that hill. 

That may be the scariest shot at Augusta.

That’s right. If I hit this shot the slightest bit too hard, it’s going over the green and off the front into the other pond. So I pitched it just short of the green in 4, chipped on in 5 and made the putt for 6. After all that, it wasn’t a terrible bogey. It could’ve been worse, a lot worse. I looked at the scoreboard then and saw I was one back. I thought, ‘Let’s just birdie the last three holes.’

Well, now that would’ve ruined all the drama. You parred 16 and 17 and then hit a massive drive on 18 for a guy who wasn’t a big hitter. Did you throw down some steroids on the tee box or what?

I’ll freak you out even more: I hit 3-wood! I played with Curtis Strange, who was up first, and he hit 3-wood off the tee. I had the driver out but the breeze was behind us and when I saw where Curtis went, I told Scotty (caddie Scott Steele), give me the 3-wood. So I hit it instead and just ripped it down the middle. I had 140 yards, it was a perfect number for my 9-iron. It was playing fast, plus the adrenaline. If I hit 3-wood on that tee now, I can’t get home in two.

Were you using metal woods or persimmon then?

I was using persimmon. It was a big 9-iron from 140, uphill. Once again, the breeze was behind us. I ripped that 9 pretty good. I remember my reaction. I yelled, “Go! Go!” It hit the lower shelf and ran up the green, then rolled back. It was a really good shot to five feet.

How big was that putt for your career?

People talk about the chip and no question, I’ll never forget that. Making that putt to birdie at the 72nd hole really meant a lot to me, especially after the disappointments I’d had the year before at TPC and the Kemper Open. I’m sure I knew I had to make but I was so much in the moment, I just said, Put a good stroke on it and knock it in. I knocked it in and I pumped my first a couple times, I was pretty fired up.

What happened next?

Curtis said, “Great playing.” I signed my card and my wife, Bonnie, was there and we went to the Jones Cabin and watched Seve play the 18th. Seve was tied with me. He hit it in the right bunker and then it was vintage Seve. He hit this beautiful bunker shot to the front left pin, it trickled out to three feet. It was just perfect, and he knocked it in for par. So now there were two of us at three under.

Norman was the next guy who had a chance.

Seve joined us in the Jones Cabin and we watched Greg. He had it on the right side on the 18th green, above the hole, about 25 feet for birdie. He hit a beautiful putt, he really did. It just melted the edge. He had agony on his face and I don’t blame him. I didn’t remember this but Bonnie refreshed my memory recently. After Greg hit that great putt that didn’t go in, she said Seve turned to me and said, “OK, Larry, you can breathe now.” I’d forgotten that.

Tell me about the playoff that started on the 10th tee. You hit last, I think, so did they decide the order by fan popularity or what?

(laughing) No doubt about that! Greg and Seve were number 1 and 2 in the world and I was nowhere to be found. No, we pulled numbers out of a hat. I think I hit last, I’m not sure. Anyway, I hit a great tee shot. There was a little breeze in our face and I said, I’ve got to rip one down the left side to get it down there as far as I can because they’re both longer than me. I nailed this drive right down the tree line. Then it must’ve hit that slope and spring-boarded because somehow I ended up 20 yards in front of them. That was amazing.

What next?

Seve hit his approach just off the right back of the green. Norman was on the back let fringe. I hit 7-iron to 12 feet left and underneath the hole, it couldn’t have been a better spot to putt from. The crowd was pulling for the underdog and maybe the local kid so I had a lot of support. It was fun to have that many people cheering for me. They both missed their putts. I thought, I have a great chance to win it right here. I missed. It kind of ran out of steam—a little firmer and it’s in. It got to the hole, just barely. So I tapped in and then Seve missed his par putt. It was a tester, at least three feet. He played it to break a little left to right, hit a good putt and it never moved. Then Seve came over, shook my hand and said, Good luck. It was very nice of him, I’ll never forget it. What a cool gesture on his part. Then he walked off and it was just Greg and I.

On to the 11th hole.

Now we’re back to normal. Greg rips one out there and he’s 20 yards past me. That’s how it was supposed to be. So I’m hitting 5-iron and he’s hitting 7-iron or 8-iron in. I hit 5-iron, trying to draw it in there—I just hung on to it, made sure I didn’t miss it left, flared it out to the right and was kind of disgusted with myself. Greg hit to the right fringe. He was 50 feet away. I thought if I can hit a good chip shot up there and make par, I can put the pressure back on him.

Well, you certainly achieved that goal.

People ask about the water behind the green—well, it’s do or die, I have to hit a good shot. In regulation, I probably would’ve left that shot 20 feet short, two-putted for bogey and moved because I had seven more holes left. In that situation, I’ve got to go for it. I knew that even if I opened the face of my 56-degree wedge and landed it on the green, the ball wouldn’t check up. I never had any indecision about the shot. There was only one shot to play in that situation, a little bump-and-run through the fringe.

You did it just right, the ball went in and you lost your mind.

Pretty much. I asked the CBS guys later, “Did y’all hear me screaming?” And they said, “Oh, yeah, we heard you. It was total excitement, I couldn’t believe it.”

It was a great moment and it was so unexpected.

People said, Were you expecting to make it? Well, you’re always hoping to let the hole get in the way but no, I was just trying to get it around the hole and have an easy par putt.

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Everyone forgets that Norman still had a putt from 50 feet to tie you.

He did. Greg had a really long putt but you never know. I thought I had him on the first playoff hole at the Kemper Open the year before and he made a 15-footer for par. I was already in for par and then he jams his putt into the hole and he wins the playoff later. So as a golfer, you have to expect the worst. This time, I was prepared to go to No. 12. I’m glad we didn’t, though.

What did his putt look like?

I was standing just off the green. The ball hadn’t even reached the hole and he had already started walking over to shake my hand. He was very gracious. I can’t remember what he said, there’s not much to say there. The next week we were together in the Harbour Town locker room and told him, You were so gracious last week, I just wanted to compliment you on how well you handled it. He complimented me on the win and that’s the last we ever said about it. It’s never personal, that’s just competing in sports.

You should’ve said, That’s Kemper Open payback, Shark! It’s 1-1 now.

(laughing) No, no. It’s still hard to believe I won. I was at Augusta National the other day and it still gets me. It never gets old. It’s such a special and tremendous place.

Is your wedge in the trophy case in the clubhouse?

Yes, it was a Jack Nicklaus Muirfield wedge. It was my backup. My regular wedge was wearing out and I didn’t want to put a new one in play at the Players Championship, the last tournament before the Masters. Around those TPC greens with all the sharp edges, I didn’t want something new in my hands. So I put my backup in at the Masters, brand new, it was the first week I played with it and I chipped in to win. So later, Augusta National writes you a letter saying, “We’d love a club that was instrumental in your victory. We understand that clubs are special so we’re patient about when we get it.” I used the wedge for another year and a half and then sent it to the club. They keep them in the men’s grille outside the locker room in a case.

How often now do you go a day without hearing about that chip?

It varies. Normally, there’s rarely a pro-am when that doesn’t come up. When I’m home, it doesn’t come up. I’m Bonnie’s husband and the boys’ dad, that’s it.

You mean you’re never around the dinner table and Bonnie says, “Hey, you remember that chip-in at Augusta? You remember that?”

(Laughing) No, no. When the boys were young and they’d see me on TV, they’d say, that’s weird, what are you doing on TV? They thought it was weird because they know me as Dad.