One in a series of previews for the April 6-9 Masters
Down in Amen Corner late on Masters Sunday in 1987, the golden light engagement-portrait perfect, Larry Mize hit one of the finest shots in golf history. What came next – after his pitch-and-run settled into the cup on the 11th hole at Augusta National for an improbable birdie-3, the equivalent of a poison dart at playoff opponent Greg Norman – was, to me, the best reaction the game has ever produced.
What about Jack Nicklaus in the 1975 or 1986 Masters, you say, or during the 1980 U.S. Open, his face after a 71st-hole birdie the epitome of glee? Or Tiger Woods – pick your exuberant uppercut – after willing home a he-can’t-do-that! putt or chip? When, in 2001, Annika Sorenstam leaped into her caddie’s arms after becoming the first woman to shoot 59, it was as if she’d been rescued after years stranded on a deserted island.
Those all-star celebrations and others are memorable in a sport with a prevailing vibe that long has been more hush than holler. But 30 years since Mize’s moment, it still stands out, not just because of what he did around the dinner hour that April day but what led up to that point.
Hometown boys Francis Ouimet (1913) and Sam Parks Jr. (1935) pulled off U.S. Open victories. They didn’t have anything, though, on Mize, who was born and raised in Augusta, the son of Charles Mize, a telephone company executive, and his wife, Elizabeth.
Until the Mizes moved across the state to Columbus as Larry entered high school, they were members at Augusta Country Club, which abuts No. 13 at Augusta National. His parents had gone to the Masters since before Larry was born in 1958. Larry manned the scoreboard on No. 3 for two years, watching the tournament and dreaming of playing for a green jacket after his shifts. Larry and his dad chipped countless balls in front of their home and pitched balls over it, hours of practice on what Charles preached was the most important part of the game.
In 1986, the same day when Nicklaus charged to his historic sixth Masters title with a closing 65, Mize matched the score to earn a trip back in ’87 when the greens, triple-cut for the first time, were glassy and treacherous. Only two strokes back after 54 holes, Mize birdied the last hole after a gorgeous 9-iron to 6 feet to finish at 3-under 285 with two-time Masters champion Seve Ballesteros. They watched as Norman’s 20-foot birdie on 18 to win somehow stayed out.
Ballesteros three-putted the first extra hole, No. 10, and trudged, uphill and upset, to the clubhouse. Following pars, Mize and Norman moved on to No. 11, with Mize’s approach well right of the green and Norman’s on the right fringe, 40 feet from the flagstick.
From what Norman later pegged as 140 feet – but what Mize contends was more like 100 – the 28-year-old who had frittered away several chances to win tournaments in the 1980s clipped his Titleist 384 ball perfectly with his MacGregor 57-degree sand wedge.
I was on assignment as a photographer for Golf Illustrated. My Nikon was loaded with Fujichrome 100, rated to 200. My 400 mm lens was wide open at f 2.8, the shutter at 1/250th of a second. Mize’s pitch flew toward the spot he’d picked, about three paces from the edge of the green. His ball bounced twice and then rolled smoothly right-to-left like the 20-foot par putt that he had holed on the 11th hole earlier in the day.
There was noise, and plenty of it. As the sound overwhelmed that pretty patch of green, Mize was aloft, a child jumping toward a ceiling that he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to touch. Club tossed and visor coming off, Mize showed an expression, frozen at the peak of his jump, that was sheer delight with a splash of surprise, the most wonderful kind of happy.
Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @BillFields1