Maybe all you really need to know about George Archer, the old coot who's leading the Kemper Open by a shot over Larry Mize after two rounds, is what he said the day in 1979 he woke up after surgery and knew he would not be paralyzed for the rest of his life.
"They fused two disks and really rebuilt my whole lower back," Archer said yesterday. "They told me I had an 80-20 chance (not to be paralyzed from the waist down). I wanted to keep on playing golf and sometimes you have to take chances. I figured, 'If it doesn't work, I'll be in a wheelchair. Other people have done it.' "
Archer was in surgery all day. The next morning, the doctor woke up the famous Masters champ by shaking his big toe and asking, "Did you feel that?"
"Feel what?" muttered Archer, coming to consciousness and waiting until he was sure that every drop of blood had drained from the doctor's face.
"He went white as a sheet," Archer recalled. "Then I said, 'Hey, just kiddin', doc.' "
You might think Archer's just kidding these days when he's on the golf course. What's he doing shooting 68-69 -- 137 on a monstrously long, wet and windy track to keep his nose ahead of the hot young Mize (68 -- 138)? What's he doing with only two other players within three shots of him: Barry Jaeckel (68) and the Tour's littlest pro, 5-foot-7, 135-pound Willie Wood (71), at 140?
What in the name of arthritis, iron poor blood and lumbago is Archer doing with a bona fide chance to win a $500,000 event? You have to look four strokes behind him to find a big name -- Hale Irwin (75) who's tied with Lon Hinkle, Doug Tewell and Jeff Sluman.
After all, this is a 45-year-old man whose career -- a good one, with three years among the top four money winners -- was considered history way back in 1972. Over 12 years, he won only one tournament, the Del Webb Sahara Invitational. Remember that one?
Yet last season Archer won $207,543, finished 28th on the money list and proved that a man with metal Harrington Rods inside his spinal column could win a Tour event -- The Bank of Boston Classic. By six shots. With a closing 65. Yes, he's just an old coot.
Archer, who looks like he'd be a long belter but really is a fabulous putter, was back working his magic on the greens yesterday. He made putts of 18, 20, 20, 12, 10 and 40 feet for birdies at holes Nos. 3, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 17.
"I didn't think there were that many birdie holes out here. That's pretty good for me," said Archer, who bogeyed Nos. 5, 14 and 16, but sank a 15-footer for par at the brutal 13th. "It's more than that. It's amazing."
Archer's work was doubly impressive because only four players broke 70 this day, compared to 15 on Thursday. Rain, fairly heavy at times, threatened to stop play in the morning when Archer and Mize were on the course. Winds picked up and made the course even more difficult during a dry afternoon.
Archer is the sort who tends to worry. "My back is touchy," he said. "Going down all the hills on this course, I really feel it." So, he'd be forgiven if he perused all the top players at par or better here.
No. 1 money winner Curtis Strange, Andy Bean and Corey Pavin are among seven players at 142 and defending champion Greg Norman (71) and Hal Sutton are in the eight-way confusion at 143. Lanny Wadkins, Payne Stewart and John Mahaffey aren't too badly placed at 144, and only two drawing cards -- '83 champ Fred Couples and Gary Hallberg -- missed the cut at 147.
The surprise of the week has been Archer's sudden discovery of more driving power. True, he exercises 45 minutes every morning for that back, but hitting 270-yard tee balls -- all carry into the wind -- is an experience he's seldom had since his Masters victory in 1969. "Don't know where it's come from. I've gained about 10 pounds recently. Maybe I didn't have my belly power."
While Archer prospered, first-round leader Irwin stumbled with a front-nine 39 and headed for the range at sundown. "People said I was on a roll from last week," said Irwin, who won the Memorial Tournament. "I defy them to say that now. It was the flip side of yesterday. I three-putted the first and fourth. Putting was a big factor, but it was everything. Driving, putting. I shot 75 but I'm still in contention."
This wasn't a good day for recent Kemper champions. Besides Couples being cut, Craig Stadler (69-77) continued to visit strange new places off the tee. Norman, three under par for the day after 10 holes, played one over par thereafter and had to make a marvelous chip-in from a bank to save par after going in the water at the 18th.
When looking for a future champion, second place might not be a bad place to start. When your middle name is Hogan and you're born in Augusta, Ga., which calls itself "the golf capital of the world," you might be expected to fall in love with golf at an early age. That's what happened to the baby-faced Mize, who learned the game at 9.
Golfers know better than to disrespect this particular cherub. "Mr. Mize is waiting to take this seat. I've had it long enough," said Archer when he spotted Mize at the back of the Kemper interview room. Veterans know better than to make the fellow with the fourth-best scoring average on Tour angry.
Mize, 26, has only won one Tour event in four years, but his 68 was the best round of the day. After a shaky start that included saves at the hard third and fourth holes, Mize three-putted the into-the-wind fifth for a bogey. Thereafter, he saw little but red as he made birdie putts of 20, 8, 5, 10, 40 and 12 feet at the sixth, eighth, 10th, 12th, 13th and 18th. He bogeyed the 11th from the right rough.
"For a while, I thought they were going to have to call (off) the round. Rain used to bother me a great deal," said Mize, "but that's just one of the things I learn more about each year that I'm out here. I really didn't know what I was doing when I came on Tour.
"You make so many mistakes at the beginning, but I try not to make 'em again," said Mize, who's won $113,798 this year.
The contrast between the languid, tale-telling, weather-beaten Archer, trying to add one last improbable chapter to his saga, and the lineless Mize, with his scant experience and lone Tour victory, was stark.
With the large galleries expected here at Congressional Country Club today, with hot, sunny weather predicted, one might assume this leaves Mize at a considerable disadvantage. On the other hand, perhaps his golf adventures are just beginning.