Yesterday begin the Sabbath, I, being a true believer, turned to the bible of golf, Bobby Jones' 1927 classic, for my spiritual reading of "Golf Is My Game," being coming out for the final round at Congressional.
In addition to being the greatest golfer ever, he won 62 percent of the major championships he entered and won them with wooden shaft clubs.Jones understood better than anyone the nature of the last day of a tournament.
He wrote: "I have not regarded seriously the tendency of some people to endow golfers with superhuman powers. Because on occasion, a few players have staged spectacular finishes to retreive victory by last-minute rallies. I have heard it said of them that they are able to pull off whatever is necessary to win. Such an idea is absurd, for if these men were capable of playing golf as they willed, they would never place themselves so that they had to beat part to win."
That, obviously, is what John Mahaffey understood. He didn't need to shoot par to win, his play being almost seemless and assuredly with no rips or tears in the garment.
With Bobby Jones' scriptural verse in mind, I looked for how the front-runners would go about playing their trouble shots. Mahaffey had his first on the opening hole, after pulling his drive into the trap on the left. Touring pros are not especially done in by these long bunker shots, because playing them demands the same kind of hand action as a regular fairway shot; hit down into the ball.
Mahaffey's puzzle was gauging how hard a strike he needed. He had to clear another bunker in front of the green. Mahaffey stands over the ball a little longer than most of the pros, and this shot, only his second of the day, seemed to delay him a few seconds more. To slam into the green bunker would get him off with three demoralizing shots before the first hole was over.
His shot, which cleared the lip of the bunker by six inches, went right, rolling a few yards short of the green. It was a keep-it-in-play shot, the gamble of a conservative not out to tempt his fortunes so early in the day.
Across the fairway was Lee Trevino, one of Mahaffey's playing partner and regarded by many in the gallery as the hovering hungry cat about to paw around with the mouse for the day, Mahaffey. Trevion also was bunkered. Forcefully, he pounded it to the front of the green. Both players parred the hole, with Mahaffey getting up and down.
Two fairways to the west I went over to see whether or not Craig Stadler, playing up ahead, might be doing anything. He had birdied the first hole and was not three strokes behind and well in the hunt. On the fourth, he had pushed his drive among some pines, which gave him a blind shot into the green.
Stadler, a beefy fellow with bulging contours similar to those of Billy Casper when he came onto the tour in 1955 (when Stadler was 2 years old), raised it up fast enough, but he went left, leaving him another trouble shot from the rough on the upslope between a pair of greenside bunkers. Stadler managed this one well, hitting it three feet beyond the cup and getting it down.
As anyone could have predicted, Trevino had a large share of trouble shots. His most spectacular came on the 10th hole. As if warming up the crowd for an impending thrill, he hooked his drive far into the trees. It caromed off the sidehill slope and landed down into the rough out of trouble. Trevino had driven into jail, and the ball itself knew how to get out.
His second shot, played with what looked to be a four-wood, was laserbeam straight and rolled dead 18 feet beyond the flag. Trevino is an exceptional shot-maker, but this one came out of a grassy lie in the downhill rough. That meant the ball, if mis-hit, would shoot off to the right, into the pond. The shot was as bold a gamble as I'd seen all week.
But that was about it for Trevino, as things turned out. Two holes later, he was in trouble on the 12th green with a sidehill slider of about 60 feet. If a couple of pine trees were between him and the cup, and maybe a gulch of water to the left or right, he would have risen to the occasion and two putted. But, with only the standard bores of distance and speed to challenge him, he slugged it well past.
He missed coming back. When Mahaffey birdied, the two changed positions, and Trevino was trailing, not leading, by one.
That was to be it, at least between those two.
Once more, I went up ahead to catch Stadler. This time, the trip was worth it, because he had picked up four shots on Mahaffey and was tied with him at three under par.
At this somewhat tense moment, Stadler, leaving the 15th hole which he had just birdied, was about to have what may be the most rankling trouble shot in all of golf: hitting a shot after being forced to wait 20 to 25 minutes on the tee.
A traffic jam had backed up two threesomes, and suddenly six pros were on the tee, in a jailhouse of emotions. Not surprisingly, the long delay caused the tempo to be broken. Everyone, including Stadler, missed the par-3 green with his tee shot.
Gamely, Stadler played a delicate lofting wedge out of trouble and stole a three.
In the end, Mahaffey didn't need a last-minute rally. Stadler bogeyed 18 and Trevino had followed his three-putt green on 12 with bogeys at 13 and 16. But, to use a favorite phase of Bobby Jones, he gave it "a miracle finish" anyway, finishing birdie-birdie.
Maybe that's how conservative golf is played these days: saving the birdies for when you don't need them.