"To ask an athlete where he gets his desire to excel, his source of toughess, is almost too big a question, like, 'What is love?' You reach a point where you say to yourself, 'Have you put up with enough? Are you sick of this? Are you ready to buckle down?' Then, you become almost devil-may-care over a shot. You picture it, play it, and never have a thought about consequences. I reached that point today." John Mahaffey, Kemper Open Champion
John Mahaffey, that outwardly bland chap with the deceivingly weak chin and the strong hidden will, is blond, blue-eyed death on a golf course, with 13 kinds of rifles in his bag and one Bullseye putter.
The 150-pound Texan with the straight-arrow game scalded Congressional Country Club with a spectacular birdie-birdie finish yesterday for a closing 68, a course record five-under-par total and a three-shot victory over Craig Stadler in the $400,000 Kemper Open before a final day crowd of 30,000.
The last time Mahaffey, 32, was at Congressional on a hot Sunday, he was in the 19th-hole grill at the 1976, PGA, his hyperextended left elbow in a sling, "drowning my sorrow and wondering if I'd ever play this game again."
Mahaffey, returning to the scene of the injury that almost ended his career, showed the tenacity of a bone-clutching terrier yesterday afternoon. After falling out of the lead for four holes, he stormed back with a final-nine 32 to win $72,000, plus a $20,000 crystal set.
By next year's Kemper, inflation may have made the crystal worth more than the cash.
Mahaffey, who battled Lee Trevino head-to-head for the first 13 holes before Trevino faded to fourth, came to the 17th tee tied for the lead with Stadler, who rose from 12th place with a closing 67.
The final showdown at evening was between Stadler, who looks like a bartender, and Mahaffey, who looks like he's never been in a bar.
As always with Mahaffey, however, appearances are deceiving. Golf is a game that is played from the inside out. The further inside the frail-looking Mahaffey you look, the more strength you find.
"I think the injuries that started here at Congressional -- the two years of being in a wilderness -- made me tougher," he said. "I had won money before that, but there's a big difference between being a money winner and a winner.
"My wife Susie told me, 'You can dream all you want, but until you work for it, you're not going to get it.'"
Seldom has the strong grain of Mahaffey's personality shown through as clearly as it did yesterday, not even perhaps in his playoff win in the 1978 PGA. "For the last 10 holes today, " he said, "I played the best golf of my life."
To understand how Mahaffey could stand up to Congressional's terrors all week, how he could make just one bogey in his final 42 holes, and how he could tear apart the two closing par 4s of 411 and 165 yards with birdie putts of 20 and 35 feet, it is necessary to look far back, to Kerrville, Tex.
"I've never talked about it much, but I had polio in my left leg when I was 4 years old," Mahaffey said. "They told me I'd never walk again.
"Then as I grew up, I was always the smallest and the lightest. It was tough to watch the other kids play and keep being told it was beyond your reach."
By high school, the 5-foot-9 Mahaffey had scored 40 points in a basketball game. "It was nothing special," he said, grinning. "I just dunked it about 14 times; you know, backwards over my head like Magic Johnson."
Throughout his life, Mahaffey has reacted to the succession of "no-you-can'ts" with a slight narrowing of the eyes, a tightening of the lips and a twitching of his upturned nose.
Characteristically, Mahaffey's spiritual mentor, one of his best friends and the man whose instruction book he used to teach himself the game, is Ben Hogan, the bantam iceman.
On this clear, draining but almost ideal summer day, Mahaffey was worthy of Hogan's blessings. He had many chances to wilt and wouldn't.
On the first hole, this man that Trevino calls a .30-.30 rifle for his accuracy, drove into a fairway bunker. After blasting out, Mahaffey faced a gruesome chip shot -- over a trap to a downhill green with the pin tucked closely behind the bunker. Instant bogey, probably.
"Last week at Muirfield, I saw Jim Colbert with a tougher chip than that," Mahaffey said. "He could have quit. Instead, he holed it. That guy has really got some guts, and there's no excuse to be out here if you haven't got 'em."
So Mahaffey gambled on running the ball through heavy greenside grass, then made a 10-foot par putt.
"That helped settle me down," Mahaffey said. But his struggles weren't over. At the third, he had to beg an errant drive to stay out of the rough ("Get lucky, you dog"), then saved par with a chip and a four-foot putt.
At the easy eighth, Mahaffey's streak of 31 bogeyless holes ended as he hashed a simple wedge approach for "a senseless bogey. I really let myself down. That's where I could have given up on myself."
When Trevino birdied both eight and nine he had a one-shot lead on Mahaffey and Gil Morgan, who finished third, four shots back. Instead of drifting back, Mahaffey dug in. Trevino, you see, inspires him.
"When I was in college (at Houston), Lee was the one who told me the truth about my game and revamped it," Mahaffey said. "He said, 'That little duck hook game ain't gonna get it on tour. Let me show you the high fade.' I won the NCAA title using the swing Lee showed me. Lee is generous and he has perserverance." In that, they are alike.
If this first Kemper at Congressional had one turning-point hole, it probably was the 12th, where Mahaffey took the lead back from Trevino.
Trevino, trying a high cut shot, left himself a transcontinental putt on a swaybacked green. He three-putted. "Gluuuuuck," Trevino said as soon as he watched the fade that wouldn't fade. "I'm going to have to have a cigarette after that shot."
Mahaffey stepped up, hit the same style shot -- the same high, floating fade Trevino taught him 10 years ago -- and set up a 5-foot birdie putt that put him back into the lead.
This day had one final chance for melodrama. Because the scoreboards here are so woefully sparse, Mahaffey played six holes, 10 through 15, with no idea what the rest of the field was doing. Stadler's back-nine charge, with birds at 10, 12 and 15, was unknown to him until he reached the 15th green and discovered he was in a tie.
Was Mahaffey's first thought one of caution, that four final pars might be enough? "I figured I'd try to birdie in," he said. "I've been in playoffs, don't like 'em."
In fact, Mahaffey almost did birdie in.
"I could have sworn that the 12-footer at the 15th was in," he said. "And the putt at 16 had a chance. At the 17th, I thought I'd missed the 20-footer, but it went in, so I guess it evens out."
Mahaffey did not know it, but his last two birdies were unecessary because Stadler came unglued at the imposing 18th. "A bad drive, a bad chip, and a bad putt sure don't add up to par," said Stadler, whose drive found jail in the left trees.
Stadler knew his fate as soon as he spied his ball under the trees, 200 years from the green, needing a drastic hook to avoid a trap. Stadler, his swing tickled both going back and coming through by leaves, produced a low draw that rolled through the trap but into deep grass.
Stadler's chip, despite his awkward stance, was not one he will remember with pride. The ball went 15 feet past the cup and his comebacker for par slid four feet past.
Mahaffey, with a two-shot lead on the 18th tee, revealed a bit more of his character. "That's not the time to guide the ball," he said. "That's the time to hit it as hard as you possibly can. I caught it on the screws and flat crushed it.
"The TV guys always seem to show me when I've hit some 'pop up' drive. They say, 'Here comes ol' shot-hittin' John. He'll have a four-wood here where everybody else is hitting a wedge.
"Well, I guess the one on the 18th went about 310 yards."
Mahaffey always may have to endure the people who judge him on his mild presence, who call him "short-hitting John," who describe him as "bland as vanilla ice cream on a bed of vanilla wafers." To those folks, he just generously says, "Aw, I don't mind. I think its funny."
When Ben Hogan is your buddy, when Lee Trevino calls you "the rifleman," when your biggest problem is what to do with a new crystal goblet worth $8,000, the whole world looks like a bowl of fudge ripple.
What is Mahaffey, fresh from the biggest payday of his life, going to practice in preparation for the U.S. Open in two weeks?
After his play here -- his longer-than-ever-before tee shots with a new flat-faced driver, his piercingly true long irons, his hot putter that closed the show here with a 30-footer in the heart -- Mahaffey had the perfect answer.
"Fishing," he said. "My fly rod needs some work."
That's real bad news for the fish.