They say football is a tough sport, but it only kills you on the outside. Usually, some dignity is left to the loser, some hint of gallantry or courage.
Golf gets you on the inside. Like those oriental tortures that spare the skin but crush both bone and spirit, golf can take from a man almost more of his core identity than seems fitting for a mere game played for money.
What happened to Larry Mize over the last five holes of the Tournament Players Championship today as he gave away a $162,000 prize and a 10-year PGA Tour exemption to John Mahaffey was like a self-inflicted public flogging.
Mahaffey's final-round 71, for a 13-under-par total of 275, was a quality piece of work on a breezy day when 22 of 99 players broke par. But it was Mize's closing 76, after rounds of 66-68-66, that defined this day of demise.
Mize won $97,200, still four strokes ahead of third-place Tim Simpson, but it was no immediate consolation.
Golfers, fellow sufferers linked by commiseration, have horrid and graphic phrases for what happened to Mize as he bogeyed four of the last five holes, including the 18th, to lose by one shot after leading by as many as five.
Your wheels come off. You unravel. You can't make it to the house. You gag, choke and play like a dog. Happens to everybody -- even the pros. Especially the pros, when the stakes get high enough.
"We all have a choke threshold," says Tom Watson of the phenomenon of nerves, judgment and morale in simultaneous mutiny. "Some are just higher than others."
All those familiar phrases apply to what befell the usually pleasant Georgian over the final mile of the Players Club at Sawgrass. Mize's demise -- cover your eyes:
Chunked one basic iron shot into the right bunker at the 14th, then pull-hooked his next simple iron into the left trash at the 15th. Skulled a 25-yard sand wedge shot across the 15th green into the trees. Drove into the rough at 16. Airmailed the 16th green with a routine 90-yard wedge shot. Still at 16, chili-dipped a 20-foot chip shot -- moving the ball only three feet. And, on the last five holes, missed crucial little putts of 8, 5, 4 and, finally, at most 4 feet.
That last ugly Mize miss -- "read it dead straight, but it dove left at the hole" -- left Mahaffey with a three-foot par putt for victory. He rolled it in the heart for his best win since the 1978 PGA Championship.
"I never saw that last putt land," said Mahaffey, who tried to hurl his visor into the lake. "So, this sets me up till I'm 47, then I can sneak around for three years until I join the seniors tour."
Almost before Mahaffey's visor had landed, his wife Susie had her arms around Mize's weeping, nine-months pregnant wife Bonnie, comforting her. What the Mizes went through at sundown here made many in the crowd wish somebody could send in a designated putter or call a timeout or hold a team meeting. But, in golf, every man is an island. You drown alone.
As Mize walked the last holes, his eyes downcast, the crowd tried to lift his spirits. "Lotta golf left, Larry!" they yelled. "Settle down, son!" called out one distraught man.
And it seemed he had.
The shot Mize hit to the infamous 17th green -- the 132-yard island hole -- was the stuff of fantasy. His four-shot lead to start the day, his five-shot margin after six holes today, and, finally, his three-shot edge with four to play, were all gone. He and Mahaffey were even.
"Felt like I had to go for it," said Mize. "I was pretty much tryin' to stick it in there."
Stick it in there he did, his eight-iron shot stopping barely more than a pace from the hole. Mize seemed saved by one brave swing.
Saving par with a none-too-easy second putt, Mahaffey dawdled. Four feet gets longer the more you look at it. He let Mize wait. Finally, the 27-year-old who grew up in Augusta and worked the Masters scoreboard lipped it left.
Mahaffey was hungry now.
At the 18th, 440 yards, lake on the left, Mahaffey "hit the drive that you dream about in that situation . . . as good as I can smoke it." His six-iron approach on the TPC's toughest hole stopped 10 yards below the hole. Meanwhile, Mize was dying. He blocked his tee shot right, making his 200-yard second shot harder. He hung it out to the right and was lucky to be in the fringe, not the pot bunkers. Mize, who had been tossing clubs aside in disgust since the 14th, was not destined to get up and down to stay alive. Mahaffey had him.
"Whew . . . I'm glad that's over," said Mahaffey afterward, drained. "Larry hit such a marvelous shot at 17. And he hit some putts earlier in the day that should have gone in. I've been in those shoes. Just time and experience . . . and he's going to get there . . . Things can happen to anybody."
Mahaffey, 37, has squandered a few chances on some pressure-packed stages -- like two U.S. Opens he threatened to win in the 1970s.
Mize, one day ago, playing better than ever in his life, said, "Don't anybody wake me up." Like a number of young players, he has been burned by the fires of contending and not winning. He led last year's Kemper Open by four shots with nine holes to play, then lost. This spring, he led at San Diego by a shot with nine to play and finished 18th. This year, in fact, his stroke average in final rounds is a scary three shots higher than his third-round mark. It's a very nasty game.
"I don't know," Mize said several times, still shaken almost an hour after his final miss. "I just didn't play well when I needed to . . . He hung in there. Some putts didn't drop for him, but he hung tough and ended up beating me."
So frustrating had been Mahaffey's own round -- full of missed chances -- that, as he reviewed his card, he suddenly burst out, "How the hell did I win this anyway?"
Mize can tell him.