With nine holes to play, Larry Mize was two under for the day, 12 under for the tournament and, as he was when play began yesterday, still four shots ahead of everyone else. From where Mize stood then, it seemed that any heat coming at him would have to come from far away.
Nine holes and a little more than two hours later, Mize was one over for the day, nine under for the tournament, and, when they stopped counting, one stroke behind the winner, Bill Glasson, who shot 66 while Mize was shooting 73. On the back nine, where the tournament was his for the taking, Mize admitted to "struggling most of the time," and shot 39. Of all 81 players in the field only seven shot worse. It might have been a long way and a long time coming, but the heat finally reached Mize. And when it got there, it found receptive tinder.
"I'd like to congratulate Bill on a super round," Mize said before saying anything else.
A 66 is a 66 is a 66.
Shoot it every Sunday and it won't take long for them to design a line of golf clubs with your name on it.
But a 66 can't climb out of a six-stroke hole without a little something to grab on to.
"I knew good and well that if I shot a 68, I'd be safe, " Mize said in a surprisingly calm, nearly serene tone. "I didn't hold up; my swing didn't hold up. I can't say I should have won it. If I should have won it, I would have. But I had a chance to win it. And I didn't." He sat quite still for a moment, then said: "Maybe it's a little easier to swallow when someone shoots a 66 to beat you than you throwing it totally away."
Mize didn't think he'd thrown it totally away. A few minutes earlier, when he'd spoken so graciously in the interview room, he'd admitted that he hadn't ever felt safe holding his four-shot lead. "A four-shot lead," he'd said, "can dwindle any time." He'd said that he'd felt all along that there would be "some low scores." And he'd smiled ironically and said, "It's very easy for me -- like I did today -- to shoot 73."
But a 73 isn't totally blowing it, is it? Even if 40 players shot better and only 30 shot worse. Did the wheels truly come off? Even with the three bogeys on the back nine -- on 10, 14 and the killer on 17 when he hit a chip shot "too soft" and needed still another chip to get clear of the fringe -- Mize was able to say, "I felt like I kept myself together pretty well. I don't have any second guesses. I feel like if I had to do it all over again, I'd do the same thing." And he'd smiled in a flattering, non-threatening kind of way and allowed how "you hit bad shots every day, and they don't get you into trouble; today I hit bad shots that did."
But totally throwing it?
"I shot 39 and lost by one," Mize said. "I was 12 under with nine holes to play."
He didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew.
"I threw it away a little."
Although this is Mize's fourth full year on the pro golf tour, and he has won over $500,000 and one tournament -- the 1983 Memphis Classic -- this was the first time the 26-year-old ever had a big lead going into a final round. On Saturday he had said, "I want to be like a horse pulling a buggy with blinders on." Which is to say that he understood the wisdom of what Satchel Paige had said so many years before: Never look behind you. Something might be gaining on you.
Mize said he never turned around.
Maybe he didn't.
He said he never thought he wouldn't win the tournament, up to and including his 20-foot birdie attempt on 18 -- the one he needed to tie Glasson and force a playoff. "Halfway there I really thought I made it," Mize said. "Only when it slid by did I know I hadn't won."
But even if you don't look at the leader boards, your caddy will. And it was Mize's caddy who told him that Glasson was indeed gaining on him, that Glasson was already 10 under and just one-stroke down after birdieing the 14th hole -- Glasson's seventh birdie of the round. By the time Mize got through his own bogey at 14, he and Glasson were tied, and then it was academic whether Mize preferred to play with a big lead, because he no longer had the option.
For the record, Mize said that the lead has its drawbacks "because everyone is shooting at you." But all things considered, he didn't mind it. Quoting Lee Trevino, Mize said, "If you're leading, at least you have some shots to throw away."
Six, as it turned out.
And he threw seven.
"I wasn't accustomed to the situation," Mize said. "I was nervous. I got too quick with a couple of shots, and they hurt me badly." Then, looking on the bright side that perhaps he alone saw, Mize said, "I feel like I've gained experience. It's been a good experience to have that lead and play with it. Maybe next time I won't be as nervous or as quick."
Mize smiled. "Only time will tell," he said.
It is said that Jack Nicklaus has appeared less satisfied in victory than Larry Mize seemed yesterday in defeat. It is, to say the least, rather unusual to see an athlete so tolerant about his circumstances, so easily persuaded by the inexorable coming of next week and with it another chance. How was it, Mize was asked, that he seemed so content? "It just happened," Mize said. "I'm still in too much shock to fume."