Larry Mize, who leads the Tournament Players Championship by four shots over John Mahaffey, has a fitting middle name for a man who stands 16 under par on one of the tightest golf courses on earth: Hogan.
Seven times in this third round, Mize's iron shots stopped within 10 feet of the cup to set up birdies. Just what you might expect from a lad who grew up in Augusta, Ga., worked the scoreboard at the Masters as a boy and dreamed of a golf career all his life.
Mize, who shot a dazzling 66 today, actually is named after his great-grandmother. She'd love him. Ben might not. Mize has a sweet tempo and a sweeter temperament. Looks like an angel and acts like one, too. Mize plays golf very well, except in the final round of tournaments he's leading.
Mahaffey, who shot 65 and is the only player within eight shots of Mize, plays his casual golf down in Texas and takes the odd tip from a man named Hogan. Ben Hogan. The Hogan.
Mahaffey is about the only modern player the old legend wastes a minute on. Mahaffey looks angelic, like Mize. He isn't. That's what Hogan, who recognizes his own gutty cut-your-heart-out spirit in Mahaffey, likes.
Statistically, Mahaffey is one of golf's best fourth-round closers. Get him near the money and he tears it out of your hand. That's why he's won more money in his career than Arnold Palmer. Mahaffey's had every kind of hard luck -- bad investments, a bad wrist injury and a bad temper around closing time -- but he's come through it tougher and better than ever. In 1985: Vardon Trophy runner-up.
Mize's whole five-year PGA Tour career has been dogged by bad Sunday memories. Every year his scoring average goes up in the last round -- this season by an alarming 2.8 strokes. Reminded of this nagging Tour stat, Mize kept his good humor, but said, "Go away."
The way Mize played this afternoon, with only a single bogey, he won't be looking for a dagger hidden inside the Players Club's cloak. "Oh, thank you. I couldn't be much happier," Mize beamed after setting a TPC three-round record of 200. In the three previous tournaments here on Pete Dye's target layout, the record was 206.
Mize birdied Nos. 2, 3, 6, 12, 14, 16 and 17 with putts of 8, 2, 10, 4, 10, 8 and 4 feet. The fifth hole gave him a bogey for the second straight day. "I played super," he said. "I'm definitely firin' at some pins. Couldn't have asked for anything better. Don't anybody wake me up. This is just a lotta fun."
Pro golf is a lot of things. But, on Sunday, it's not often fun. Last year at the Kemper Open, Mize had a four-shot lead heading to the final day -- had a four-shot margin with nine holes left, for that matter -- and lost. This season he led at San Diego with nine holes to play and finished seventh.
"I want to learn to win rather than contend," said Mize, who has one Tour victory (in 1983 at Memphis). "I can't let my mind get ahead of myself . . . . I've got to keep it in my thick mind to keep on doin' it just like I have been -- make some birdies . . . . Right now, I'm playin' as good as I've ever played."
If Mize has a flaw, it is an overactive conscience. He's hard on himself, gets a case of the guilts for what he takes to be his sins. "I definitely get upset, especially if I do something that I think is dumb," said Mize, spontaneously recalling how one water-bound shot at the 10th hole in the Kemper at Congressional Country Club last year "started my downfall."
On a lesser scale, Mize's career progression is reminiscent of the Tom Watson of the early 1970s, the one who carried a "choke" label until he failed often enough to learn how to win.
"I think what happened at Kemper will help me on Sunday," said Mize.
As for Mahaffey, he is content to lie in the weeds -- a secure four shots ahead of Tim Simpson (66 today) and second-round coleader Bob Murphy (74) and five in front of Tom Kite and Brett Upper. If Mize gets the miseries, that $162,000 first-place check might be up for grabs. If not, $90,000 for second isn't bad.
"That's about as good a round as I've ever played, especially considering the penalties on this course for missing any shot and considering how the wind came up today and drove up most of the scores," said Mahaffey. "I don't know what [score] it would be equivalent to, but I've never shot that low."
Mahaffey started birdie-birdie with short putts. Another birdie at the fourth and a bogey at the seventh still left him far back in the pack. At the ninth, he started his move. "I made a Tom Watson," he said of his 40-foot birdie putt. "If that putt hadn't hit the back of the cup, gone up in the air and dropped, it would still be rolling."
That started a string of four birdies, none requiring long putts. One more birdie, at the easy 497-yard 16th hole, kept him in the hunt.
At 37, Mahaffey still seems to be reaching his peak. Ninth on the money list last season ($341,595), he's aiming higher. "I changed my whole swing three years ago and I've just kept improving. My average drive was 248 yards in '84. Last year it was 268," said Mahaffey, who bristles at being called a short hitter, since he isn't one anymore.
The Mahaffey pride also prickles at any mention of his advancing golf age. "Everybody's on me about that," he snipped. "At the first tee they introduced me as an old veteran of 16 years."
Someday, Mize might be as comfortable near the top of the leader board as Mahaffey now is. Four shots in hand might be enough to help him take another step in the maturation process of a pro golfer.
"Forget the money," said Mize as evening fell and the Sawgrass winds continued to increase. "I want to win the golf tournament. It's the trophy and being the champion that's important to me."