Among the new breed on the pro tour, the certified heroes are few. It has been a lament that the tour is hurting for types who can make the galleries do nip-ups when the next threesome appears on the tee, or at least hold a breath. That's how it was most of the way in the Kemper Open at Congressional Country Club.
But on Sunday, John Mahaffey, struck a big blow for himself, and so did Craig Stadler even on a day when Stadler fell out of the lead and lost the $72,000 first prize by three strokes. Mahaffey, by his manner of winning, is knocking hard on the door and demanding acceptance as one of the big boys of the tour; and Stadler now deserves three if not four stars beside his name.
It was unfortunate that Mahaffey was described in this newspaper as "bland as vanilla ice cream floating on a vanilla wafer." His arrow-straight kind of golf, with a little flirtation with trouble, is the game all pros would pay dearly to own, and is not to be confused with blandness. Neither is his intentness or lack of demonstration on the course.
In the clubhouse interview room, Mahaffey is a sun-tanned joy, peering out from long blond, measured locks and saying he has no quarrel with his detractors, and telling them that, actually, after he finally thinks out each shot he takes a "devil-may-care" swing.
Some would say Mahaffey is more interesting off the course than on it -- "I don't think too much of a round before it starts; if I did I'd be scared to death --" but those were certainly two interesting putts he made to lock it up on 17 and 18. One was from 20 feet, the other from 35. "Actually I was surprised it dropped," he said of the putt on the last hole. "I was only trying to avoid a three-putt green."
It was with special grace that he knocked off Lee Trevino on the finishing holes after Trevino's charge carried him into the lead on the turn. It is no fun when Trevino looks you in the eye at that point.
That Mahaffey won the Kemper is a wonderful frame of reference for him. It was being played at the Congressional Country Club with its high-sounding name, and other big shot connotations of the nation's capital, and that moves the whole thing up in terms of a significant win by Mahaffey.
He won it, too, on a links that many pros were calling too long and had beefs about the thin greens cut to 5/32 of an inch. And he, a reputed short hitter, also handled the greens as if they were no problem at all. Later he bristled when reminded he doesn't hit the long ball. "I'm not a short hitter any more," he said. "How long was that drive, the one on 18?" It was agreed that his drive had been 310 yards, enabling him to use a nine-iron to the green for that 465-yard hole. He was unafraid to go for the works, despite holding the lead.
The Kemper needed something stimulating like Mahaffey gave them, because Tom Watson, the man who most had come to see, was six strokes out of it by the start of the final round, and the charge he mounted near the finishing holes was too late, everybody knew.
At the start of the last round with Trevino only one stroke behind a still questionable Mahaffey, it was apparent the pro golf industry should pay Trevino something extra for the enduring suspense he breathes into every tournament. But finally, Mahaffey took care of the excitement factor. And then it was remembered that he was no "who he?" Only two years ago in the playoff for the PGA title he stared down both Tom Watson and Jerry Plate to win that title.
The Kemper is only the sixth tournament Mahaffey has won on the tour since 1971, but hand and arm injuries slowed up his play. There was some wonder, too, back when he was 4 years old, if he'd ever do much of anything again. That was when he had polio in his left leg. Maybe he should get points for not mentioning this to golf writers until yesterday, when it suddenly came out.
Now for Craig Stadler. Actually, there's nothing sudden about his good golf. He won the Bob Hope Classic and the Greensboro Open earlier this year. His 71.68 per round average is only slightly behind Mahaffey's. He alerted a lot of people to who he was, including millions of TV viewers, on the finishing rounds of the Kemper.
Stadler is unstylishly stout, with a roundish face to match, set off with an ample moustache. If his 210-pound listing in the brochures is not questionable, his 5-10 is. He appears much shorter, although this may be an illusion due to his girth. Anyway, thousands of golfers with more than a bit of equalatorial bulge now have somebody on the tour to identify with. They can be so simpatico with Craig Stadler.
There is nothing unstylish about his golf game, which is a good one, and solid. He was up there in a tie for the lead of the Kemper only three holes from the finish. He had some trouble on 16, but a nice chip from the tall grass saved his par, and he missed a birdie on 17 from 15 feet.
But he found trouble on 18, from a hooked drive. Overhanging leaves crimped his next swing and sent his second shot to a bunker's edge. When his third, from the trap's edge, ended up 20 feet past the cup, leading to a bogey, Stadler simply lowered his round face, mustache and all into his crooked right arm in a simple show of unhappiness for all to see.
You want style, on a golf course? This fellow gives it to you in many ways. Lost the $72,000 by three strokes, but finished second, and anyway there is no defense for the 20- and 35-foot putts Mahaffey sank on 17 and 18. Craig Stadler is sending out nice vibes, and not only for the stout folks.