Monday, 27 March 2017

1987 US Masters: Larry Mize

Thirty years ago Larry Mize shocked the golfing world by winning the US Masters. There may have been an element of luck involved in his winning shot, but does he get enough credit for his success?

It seems that Larry Hogan Mize cannot win. Before the 1987 US Masters, the Augusta-born 28-year-old was known for the odd collapse or two, harshly called Larry D. Mize (demise, get it?) after a final round 76 at the 1986 Players' Championship saw him lose the title by one shot. But even after his finest hour, claiming the 1987 US Masters in a play-off against Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros, there were doubting voices. Trawl the web for articles on the worst or luckiest player to have won a major, and the name Larry Mize is constantly mentioned.

The debate as to whether Larry Mize was a lucky major winner or not always seems to focus on his shot played at the second play-off hole. His 140-foot chip on the 11th hole at Augusta on Sunday April 12 was a moment of high sporting drama, as viewers were left astonished, stunned, and aghast at what they had just witnessed. But was it purely luck? Surely Mize was aiming to get the ball in the hole, just as Tiger was with his miracle shot on the same course in 2005? And what about the 73 holes that had preceded Mize's defining moment?

A lot of water had passed under the Hogan, Nelson and Sarazen bridges by the time 85 golfers had been whittled down to just three players late on that dramatic Sunday. For two of the last three standing, the lead up to the event had inevitably centred on their experiences at the previous Masters tournament, with both Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros forced to face a lot of questions relating to their shots played at the 18th and 15th holes respectively during Jack Nicklaus' victory for the ages. Sadly, there would be more wounds to heal for the duo come Sunday.

Despite their 1986 pain, Norman and Ballesteros were undoubtedly seen as favourites, along with world number two Bernhard Langer, with the British press also talking up the chances of Players' Championship winner Sandy Lyle. Tom Kite, another who had come close to spoiling the Nicklaus party in 1986, was expected to come close to that elusive first major, with Ben Crenshaw, Payne Stewart, and Curtis Strange, also carrying American hopes. Tom Watson was mentioned in tournament previews, but with the greens at Augusta expected to be quicker than ever, his ongoing putting troubles were seen as a major barrier to his hopes.

The course at Augusta National came under scrutiny before and after the opening two rounds. After a practice round, Norman commented on the fast and firm greens, noting that "We will not be hitting dartboard-type shots into all the greens this year." Norman's next comment proved to be chillingly prescient: "It will call for bump and run shots at times."

Others would have their say on Augusta as the week progressed, with Sandy Lyle, in particular, critical of the setup. "It was just one big joke out there," Lyle noted after his first round 77. "There is no give at all in the greens." After his improved 74 in round two, his opinion had not shifted on the greens: "It wouldn't surprise me if some of them turn to dust before too long."

The unforgiving nature of the greens was highlighted in the first round scoring. Only John Cook would break 70, the American managing to do this with a spare set of clubs, his original set still missing after a flight from New Orleans three weeks before. Mize would shoot a 70 (two under par), but only six others would break par on a testing day (Langer, Strange, Watson, Stewart, Calvin Peete, and Corey Pavin). Ballesteros and Norman were both one over par, but only four shots behind leader Cook. It was becoming apparent that the winner of the 1987 US Masters was not going to tear the course up.

With the greenkeepers at Augusta soaking the putting surfaces overnight, some early starters took advantage, with Pavin - the leading player on the US PGA tour - moving to five under after 11 holes; three bogeys in the next four holes would slow his momentum, however. The best round of the day belonged to Californian Roger Maltbie. After a first round 76, Maltbie's hopes of making the weekend looked slim, but his 66 on day two would see him start Saturday just one stroke off the lead.

The leader at the halfway stage was another with some Augusta ghosts to exorcise. Curtis Strange, three under for the tournament, was still being grilled at press conferences about his collapse in 1985, but with a one stroke advantage over Maltbie, Mize, Pavin, and Cook, Strange had given put himself into a position to bury his painful memories.

Langer, Watson, and TC Chen (another who had suffered major heartbreak) were just two behind Strange, with Ballesteros a further stroke back, but it would be two players that started Saturday morning over par that would be the main men on moving day. Norman, promising to go out and enjoy himself, shot a 66, and a run of four straight birdies on the back nine saw Ben Crenshaw shoot an inward 31, his 67 enough to give him a share of the lead with Maltbie, going into the final day on four under par.

A look at the leaderboard going into the Sunday emphasises just how exciting the 1987 Masters was. With Langer and Norman one behind the leaders, and Strange, Chen, Mize, and Ballesteros trailing by two, Langer's assessment of the situation was spot on: "It will boil down to what it always boils down to, the last nine holes. There are so many players within five, six or seven shots that you can't make anyone the favourite." Even Watson (five behind) and Nicklaus (trailing by seven) could not be ruled out.

The 1987 Masters would ultimately be concluded in stunning circumstances, but a lot of what went before should not be forgotten. Naturally Langer was right, and the back nine of the tournament on that Sunday were nerve-tingling to say the least. Somehow three players emerged from the jostling pack, yet many had their chances on a day that was dripped in tension and provided the ideal template for the conclusion of a major.

Although Jodie Mudd's 69 would set the initial clubhouse target of two under par, Mize's superb approach shot on the last led to a birdie that would see the local lad go one better than Mudd, but for others things would not go to plan.

Strange, three under after eight holes, dropped five shots in four holes to end his dream, and Langer, on the same score after nine, carded bogeys at 10, 12, 14, and 15. Chen would also slip away, never recovering from a double bogey at 11.

For a long time it looked as if Seve's wait for a third green jacket would roll on. But birdies at 15 and 17, along with a fine up and down from sand at the last saw him tie with Mize. After a great putt at 17, Norman came within inches of claiming his second major - "I couldn't believe it missed" - his birdie effort at 18 slipping agonisingly past the hole. He did at least make the play-off, though. Neither Maltbie or Crenshaw could find a birdie at 18, the latter paying the price for a failure to par 17 from just off the green.

And so to the sudden death three-way play-off. Mize may have been the outsider of the trio, unsurprisingly seeing as he was up against the world number one and three in Norman and Ballesteros respectively. But after each player had found the fairway of the 10th on the first play-off hole, it would be the American who gave himself the best opportunity of claiming the green jacket.

Norman and Ballesteros had both left themselves with tricky par putts after their birdie attempts from the fringe of the green slid past. After a fine approach shot, Mize now stood on the brink of success. However, his putt lacked conviction and the chance was spurned. But minutes later, three had become two.

Ballesteros' missed par putt was another sad conclusion to a Masters tournament for the Spaniard. Conceivably, he could have won every title at Augusta between 1985-87, but each time he left empty handed, and after his missed putt he walked back to the clubhouse in tears. Ballesteros later complained that the Masters should not be decided in a sudden death play-off format, yet after three-putting from 20 feet, sadly Seve only had himself to blame.

Norman and Mize moved on to the 11th, the start of Amen Corner, and ultimately the end of the 1987 Masters. Mize's disgusted reaction after his second to the par four said it all; pushing his shot way right, his chances of getting up and down from 140-feet and staying in the play-off now looked slim. With Norman on the edge of the green, it was advantage Australia.

And then it happened. The moment that cemented Larry Mize's place in golfing history forever more. As Mize's chip moved towards the hole, the impossible all of a sudden began to look probable. The ball hit the flag and dropped in, as Mize leaped around the environs of the 11th green, losing his visor in the process, with the patrons whooping and hollering in a combination of amazement and jubilation.

"And they say the meek shall inherit the earth," Peter Alliss commented as the enormity of the moment hit home. "Greg Norman must be feeling rather sick in the tummy." So true. After being denied in the previous major by Bob Tway's bunker shot at the final hole, Norman openly admitted that after Mize's chip: "I just looked up above and thought 'Why does this always happen to me?'" Perhaps not surprisingly, Norman's final effort slipped past. Larry Mize was the Masters champion.

"I've got to thank the Good Lord....and a little bit of luck," Mize stated, as he received his green jacket from Jack Nicklaus. It was only his second ever tournament win on the PGA tour, and his Masters victory automatically qualified Mize for the Ryder Cup. That 140-foot chip on the 11th hole changed his life immediately, but as the dust settled, the murmurings regarding Mize's triumph started.

Labelled as lucky, Mize did have at least one man one his side; the player he had defeated in such dramatic circumstances. "I feel sorry for him, I really do," Norman said before the 1988 Masters. "A lot of people call it a fluke. They tell me it was too bad I had to lose on such a lucky shot. I keep telling those people that he wasn't trying to make a bogey. He was trying to make that shot, and that's exactly what he did."

Lucky or not, the last word should go to the champion, the man who as a youngster had operated scoreboards on the course, and had now returned to land the big prize. "Of course, I don't think it was a fluke. People can think whatever they want, though. It doesn't bother me. I don't have any trouble with it. Remember, I played 73 other holes before that shot. It was an incredible shot. But that's the way it goes. It can go in from anywhere. And sometimes, it does." Just ask Greg Norman.

No comments:

Post a Comment