April 8, 2009

Friendly Terrain

More than two decades removed from his unlikely Masters win, a 50-year-old Larry Mize turns back the clock

On a day ripe for scoring, Larry Mize was the most surprising player to take advantage.

On a day ripe for scoring, Larry Mize was the most surprising player to take advantage.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- When Larry Mize was 9 years old, he lived at 707 Aumond Road near the intersection with Wheeler, about 15 minutes from Augusta National Golf Club. He went to his first Masters.

When Mize was 10, he went to the Masters and collected tees from Jay and Lionel Hebert.

When Mize was 14, he volunteered and hung up numbers on the Masters scoreboard at the third hole.

When Mize was 28, he won the Masters, chipping in at the 11th hole to beat Greg Norman in a playoff.

When Mize was 49, he missed the cut at the Masters for the seventh time in eight years.

When Mize began his 25th Masters with a first-round 67 on Thursday, it was the most surprised he's been in his 50 years . . . except of course for that flash of lightning he captured when he holed out to beat Norman in 1987.

Did he see this coming? Mize shook his head no.

"I did not imagine a 67," said Mize.

Few could, but then even fewer could have fathomed Mize knocking out Norman in that two-hole playoff 22 years ago. Mize, who made a six-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole to get into the playoff with Norman and Seve Ballesteros, then watched Ballesteros fall out at the first extra hole. The 11th was next and Norman held the advantage when Mize missed the green to the right.

But from 140 feet away, Mize got the ball in the air, on the green and in the hole. He leaped, his visor flew and his legacy was secure.

His hair is thinner and it's gray now, but the gallery around the 18th green Thursday still recognized the local boy, and Mize drew a round of polite applause. He tipped his cap.

It's nice to be remembered, he said. That moment has lasted a lot longer than he could have expected, and the questions he's asked about it haven't thinned out all that much, either.

"Every time I'm here, I don't know, but quite a bit, because that's a popular question for me. You know, it's OK. I don't mind. It's a good subject for me."

Only three other players had better rounds than Mize on Opening Day at the Masters, one of them Hunter Mahan, who was four when Mize had his magical Masters moment.

There's no question that the decision-makers at Augusta National set up the course Thursday so that there would be scoring opportunities -- and to end talk about how they've taken all the joy out of the place. And Mize was fortunate enough to take advantage, even if nobody could have expected him to be the one to join in all that jumping on the low-scoring bandwagon.

He said his mind set was good, better than it's been in awhile.

"I think a lot of it is that I just had a good attitude. I wanted to come in, enjoy my time.

"I love playing here and I remember driving down Magnolia Lane Tuesday night to come to dinner, reminds me how nice it is to come back here and how thankful I am to come back to this place every year."

After his triumph at the Masters, Mize won just once more, six years later. He's won only four times in his 27-year PGA Tour career. Maybe he should have won more often, but it's hard to say that banking nearly $8 million along the way adds up to some sort of failure.

Besides, he's got history on his side. How in the world did that unassuming kid from the neighborhood beat Norman, one of the top players in the world then in his prime?

Mize isn't sure, but it doesn't even matter. He can feel good about himself. As for Norman's stroke of bad luck to be stuck in Mize's path, well, that's the way it goes.

"You know, when you're competing, it's nothing personal. You're just playing your best."

That green jacket still fits, Mize said. He lives in Columbus, Ga., but his hometown and his favorite tournament and his biggest moment all remain connected in one long loop of karma and history. It's too early, and essentially foolhardy to think Mize can win it again. But if that happens, he'd be thrilled, if only to make amends for an unexpected bogey.

When he chose the menu for the Champions Dinner in 1988, Mize went with steak and peach cobbler. He realized later that's pretty boring.

"I didn't know what I was doing. I thought everybody had to eat what I ordered and I didn't want to offend anyone. I didn't know you can eat anything. Anyway, I'd love to have the chance to do it over again."