Alan Tapie, one of the PGA tour's carbon copies of Jack Nicklaus, took the third-round lead today in the Doral-eastern Open golf tournament with a 10-under-par 206.
However, most eyes seem to have been drawn to the man on his shoulder -- just one stroke behind -- tiny Mark McCumber.
Occasionally, a personality pops up on the PGA circuit so engaging that almost everyone connected with the dangerously gray world of pro golf crosses his fingers and hopes the newcomer can make a splash.
That's the case with the 5-foot-7 McCumber, a rookie rabbit who looks, and quips, like actor Richard Dreyfuss while whacking monstrous drives of 350 yards.
With the Gaelic words "Erin Go Bragh" ("Long Live Ireland") on the Blue Monster scoreboard, the Scotch-Irish McCumber celebrated St. Patrick's Day by staging a day-long battle with Tapie. Both fired 69s. The only better round of the day was Kermit Zarley's 29-37 -- 66 that left him tied for fourth place at 211 with secondround leader Bruce ("Krash") Kratzert, who faded with a 75.
Tucked inconspicuously between Tapie-McCumber and Kratzert-Zarley was rail-thin iron specialist Bill Rogers, whose 70 left him at 208, two shots off the lead.
Nevertheless, like most fans here, Rogers wanted to talk about McCumber, who played in his group.
"I can't hardly believe the drive Mark hit at the 10th hole," said Rogers. "Might be the godawfullest thing I ever saw. He was 100 yards past me, at least."
That drive -- a scalding low hook that rolled as if it were on a pool table -- was pure McCumber, a combination of gall and gumption.
"I absolutely killed it," McCumber said with a grin. "The hole's what... 543 yards and I had 197 yards left... hit a five-iron on the green for birdie. That makes it 346 yards? That's about right, I guess. There was a crosswind about 25 miles an hour that was mostly in my face; that didn't help it any.
"Some of the guys out here are teasing me, saying, "See if you can hit it 50 yards past that one,'" said McCumber, a self-taught golfer who once quit playing for four years and bombed out of the PGA qualifying school six times.
"But, you see, they can't get to me and upset me. You can't make me swing any harder than I do. I'm at 98 percent all the time. If I swung any harder, I'd fall over."
Tapie is the perfect example of the contemporary cookie-cutter pro -- precise, self-contained, clean cut. Once he had a trace of flare -- a passion for the young ladies -- but he got married, settled down and made the top 60.
His success here has been simply explained: "I think I've made every putt inside 12 feet all week, except for maybe three. I've never putted this well in my life."
McCumber, by contrast, has all the mannerisms of a duffer. Every bird call and twig snapping can distract him. When a huge tractor started growling in the underbrush like a dinosaur in a tar pit, McCumber backed off the tee and asked, "What on earth is that? Somebody kill it."
The spectators look at him, and his 6-foot-5 caddie with the shoulder-length platinum hair, as if they are two Martians. And a general inspection of McCumber for visible muscles reveals none.
"Timing," says a grizzled marshal, explaining the long drives, and everyone nods approvingly. In golf, that one word explains all mysteries, while leaving them intact.
Actually, McCumber is the epitome of the public links sodbuster, the guy who blasts the clubs into the ground as though he is trying to kill a rattlesnake.
His job today was to draw abreast of Tapie, who began the round birdie-birdie-birdie to take a three-shot lead on the field.
When McCumber followed a 330-yard drive at the sixth with a blank-the-stick wedge and a birdie putt, then ran down a 15-foot birdie at the par-3 ninth, he was a stroke behind. After his 346-yard drive and subsequent birdie at the 10th, McCumber shared the lead for four holes.
Tapie took a shot lead with a birdie at the 419-yard 14th, and kept it to the clubhouse as both he and McCumber parred in except for three-putt bogies at the tough par-3 15th.
In this year of little-known tour winners, both Tapie and McCumber gave evidence of staying power by surviving the brutal, 437-yard into-the-gale 18th -- the hole that gave this course its name.
Tapie negotiated a nerve-wracking, side-hill, 180-yard iron over water -- nailing the shot on the flag only to see a gust of wind blow the ball into a trap. Instead of becoming rattled, he blasted out to six feet, then sank another of his innumerable putts inside 10 feet. Then McCumber stepped to the 18th and dared it to do its worst.
"Unless the wind is dead in my face, I can drive it straight over the water," he said, words which must make every pro except Jim Dent shudder at his audacity. McCumber's tee ball hooked, flirting with a dunking for its entire 300-yard flight.
"I was holding my breath," said the mighty mite from Jacksonville. Finding his ball in a bad lie, but dry, McCumber gouged it into a greenside trap.
Then, walking on to national TV for the first time, McCumber blasted to 15 feet, sank his putt to save a par and remained one shot off the lead.
"I'll just try not to look over my shoulder, not get excited," said Tapie, who has never won a PGA event. "'Course, that's easier said than done."
"I'll just try to think about one shot at a time, isolate," said McCumber. "Man, I can't think too much about consequences. Bad things happen. Just hit it as long and straight as I can, find it, then hit it again."
Then McCumber looked at the TV cameras, the amphitheater affect of the 18th-green stands.
"I hope," he said, "that I have to do a lot of this for the rest of my life."
He, and many others here hope that these three rounds are just the beginning, not the entirety, of the budding McCumber story.
"The Short, Happy Life of Murk McCumber" is a work that the PGA does not need to read.