The end of the last Kemper Open at Congressional Country Club, on the sixth hole of an exhausting playoff yesterday, seemed unfitting and unworthy, almost an insult, to both victorious Greg Norman and tenacious Larry Mize.
Such a day of marathon drama deserved more than a final fatal fluke bounce for the loser and an anticlimax of a gift-wrapped triumph for the champion.
Mize, after knocking two balls into the lake beside the 18th green, simply put his ball in his pocket. Why close out a gallant day with a quadruple bogey. Better an "X" with dignity.
No wonder they call Mize the Snakebite Kid. As he walked toward the final green, he was all ready to play a fairly routine sand shot, probably save par, and see if Norman could sink a long birdie putt to win. Instead, he arrived at the green and was told his ball had taken "a monstrous bounce" over the back trap and gone in the lake.
Most of what was left of a crowd of 38,000 had no idea where Mize lay.
After a drop, Mize tried to hole out from the rough for a par, barely missed the cup and scooted across into the water again. Lying five now. It's all yours, Sharkie.
So, an almost perplexed Norman lagged up from 20 feet and tapped in his par putt from a foot for his second Kemper title in the last three.
The crowd hardly knew whether to cheer. Was it all over?
After six hours on a sweltering, 93-degree day, after 24 holes, after Norman and Mize played the 16th, 17th and 18th holes three times, that's the finale?
Even Norman, the Great White Shark, said, "I feel a little saddened for Larry. To have the hole given to you . . . well, you'd rather win with a birdie. I feel sorrow for him. He'd played so aggressively."
Norman deserved some final stroke of brilliance to cap his $90,000 title. Like the 66 he shot in the final round for an 11-under-par total of 277 to force that playoff. Or the 12-foot do-or-die putt he made on the first playoff hole to stay alive. Or the 400-yard drive -- yes, an honest 400-yard drive on a windless day -- that nearly won it all at the 18th the second time around.
And Mize merited so much more than the bitter taste left in his mouth at sundown as he said, softly, "Well, here we are again."
Starting the day with a one-stroke lead, he'd ground his gut for a quality last-day score of 69. This was not the knee-knocking Mize who came apart with four-shot leads on the back nine at the 1985 Kemper and 1986 TPC. This was a man who, locked in a three-way tie with Norman and Mike Reid, ripped off birdies at the 69th and 70th holes to take a two-shot lead that almost held.
The determined Mize even sank a 15-foot par putt on the second playoff hole to keep breathing. In fact, he parred five straight playoff holes, going 'round and 'round that hard 16-17-18 loop, waiting for a Norman flub that never came.
Okay, so Mize bogeyed the 72nd hole when he knew he only needed a par to win and atone for his previous collapses. And he looked bad doing it, visiting the rough and a trap before burning the edge on an 11-foot putt for victory. You can say he blew it; you can say the pressure got him again, that he could do everything but win. But you'd surely be stretching a point.
After so much sweat and so many twists and turns of battle, something more fitting than a "monstrous bounce" should have decided this $500,000 dehydration clinic.
But that's what happened.
On the sixth playoff hole -- the 465-yard downhill No. 18 -- Mize was 161 yards from home in light rough that wouldn't frighten a weekend player. He took out an 8-iron and, as the pros say, "caught a flier."
"I was excited and nervous coming down the stretch," he said, "but I trusted what got me there. I ripped it at the flag and tried to let all the hard work pay off . . . I got where I needed to be. I just bogeyed the last hole . . . I'd love to have that last drive over at the 72nd . Just got 'over' it a little . . . But I feel like I played well."
Even Norman was a bit shocked to end up in a playoff.
"For some reason," he said, "after I finished -- and 66 is the most I could have shot the way I played, I just ate up the flags all day -- I just thought Larry was going to make par and win. At the first playoff hole, I told my caddie, 'What are we doing here?' "
It took Norman three playoff holes to get his rhythm back. First, he missed the 16th green short right, chipped to 15 feet and sank it for par after Mize was already in with a routine two-putt.
Then, at the 17th, Norman was far right off the tee on a hardpan lie. He nailed it onto the green, perhaps unnerving Mize, who pull-hooked a short-iron shot over the left back from perfect position in the fairway. This time, Norman two-putted while Mize hit a too-strong chip, then ran the 12-foot comebacker into the heart of the cup.
Next, at the 18th, Norman hit one of the longest drives of a lifetime that includes a documented 483-yard blow. He had 64 yards left to the 465-yard hole. Mize, who only drilled his ball 330 yards on the baked downhill fairway, left himself an 11-foot birdie putt. Almost exactly the same putt from above the hole that he had missed in regulation. Again, he left it out of the hole right.
The gallery, jammed to the very edge of the green, gasped in amazement when Norman pulled his six-foot birdie try over the left edge.
That started the long march back to No. 16 to start the whole shebang again. This time both Nos. 16 and 17 were fairly dull affairs -- two-putt pars for both.
Then came the finish. Mize was in the light left rough off the tee. Norman, who completely ignored a dozen fans running across the fairway 100 yards in front of him as he was in his backswing, found the light rough about 330 yards out. The Shark was ready to go birdie hunting, but when he saw Mize's predicament, played safe to the center.
If Mize has cause to curse his luck at the day's conclusion, he might remember that he had an equally good break at the seventh hole, one that transformed his day. Having been passed by Reid, who was playing in his threesome, and caught by Norman, playing up ahead, he seemed in a blue funk. His wild tee shot at the 166-yard hole was headed toward bogey or more when it hit the camera of one John Michaels, a free-lance photographer, and took an amazing sideways bounce onto the green.
"I thought I'd killed somebody," Mize said to the gallery. "So that's why y'all come out. Thanks."
Mize then birdied the eighth and 10th to get back to the top of the three-way seesaw with Reid and Norman. By the 15th, all were tied.
Mize went to the front alone with a 12-foot birdie at 16. Reid made the first of two straight bogeys.
When Norman ran home a 10-footer at the 17th for birdie, it looked like "good show" but "no cigar." When Mize missed a similar 10-footer by a molecule at the same 17th, it looked immaterial.
Who knew that, on that 72nd tee, one more nasty hook would sneak into Mize's swing? Pressure is not yet Mize's friend; it simply may not be his mortal enemy anymore.
"When you come close and don't win, you keep asking yourself, 'Why, why, why?' Larry doesn't have any nice, fond memories to look back on in those situations," said Norman. "I just tell myself, 'You've been here before and done it, so why not do it again.'
"There's no doubt I play better when the pressure's on . . . Believing in yourself is the main thing . . . "
Sharks are good at that. Especially when they know that they don't have more serious worries.
Just a few weeks ago, Norman was a worried man. For a year, he'd had a mystery ailment that caused him to lose 10 pounds, feel sluggish and weak and, periodically, gave him sudden fevers.
"They told me it might be a tumor on my lung and you always think cancer," he said. "But it turned out to be an inflammation in the bronchial tube in the lower part of my right lung."
Medication seems to have cured the condition, though the verdict won't be final for a couple of weeks. "This is the first time I've felt good in a long, long time," said Norman.
"Going shark hunting just before the U.S. Open," said Norman. "You know, looking for the Great Whites."