THE MASTERS

Larry Mize: The Lucky Man

Larry Mize Main

The instant he it, he knew.

The fact that the ball landed on the exact spot he had picked out in his mind’s eye only strengthened his conviction. This could be it. This could be the moment this hometown boy won The Masters.

Truth be told, there was no other shot on. A poor second into the 11th – the second hole of a sudden-death playoff – left him with absolutely no alternative. His opponent, Greg Norman, was just on the green, around 40 feet from the hole, and putting for birdie. He had to assume the Australian would, at worst, make four, so he would need to do likewise. That meant playing the perfect third from purgatory, knowing that either heaven or hell awaited.

He couldn’t land the ball on the green because, with the speed and slope of the slick surfaces, there’s no way it would finish on the short stuff. It was for the same reason he couldn’t pull his 8-iron and play a little bump and run.

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No, the only option was to grab his 56˚ wedge – the only wedge in his bag – and try to check the ball once, if not twice, into the bank in front of the green. Beyond that, it was up to gravity and fate to do the rest.

He executed it just the way he wanted and, as the ball tracked towards the hole, on a seemingly inexorable collision course with it, he froze.

It was happening.

It was really happening.

The ball disappeared below the ground and the roars went up. So, too, did his wedge, tossed high into the air as euphoria consumed him.

When Norman failed to convert his putt, the 1987 Masters Tournament was over.

Larry Mize, born in Augusta 28 years earlier, was the champion.

* * *

Larry Mize

GROWING UP IN AUGUSTA, The Masters was a big deal for Mize and his classmates. For one thing, it signalled spring break. For another, it was a week when the world’s best golfers came to town, bringing with them the eyes of the world. “It was something

we looked forward to every year,” he recalls.

In the early-seventies, tickets were much easier to come by than they are now. He and his father Charles were members at Augusta Country Club, the course that backs onto ‘Amen Corner’, and so The Masters was, as Mize puts it, a great opportunity to “sit in the bleachers and try to learn some stuff”.

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He saw all the greats up close. Players like Gene Littler and Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Henry Picard. The one he was most excited to watch, though, was Jack Nicklaus. “He was so powerful. He could hit the ball so far and was such a fantastic champion.”

When he turned 13, Mize applied to be a scoreboard operator at the tournament. He lucked-out, getting assigned to the third hole. “It was great fun. You got a free ticket and a free lunch. There were two different shifts – early and late – and no matter which one you got, you were always able to watch the leaders play most of their rounds afterwards.”

All of which makes his win in 1987 even more remarkable. He had made his debut in the tournament only three years earlier, courtesy of his 1983 Memphis Classic victory, and had finished in a more-than-respectable tie for 11th.

But winning?

Winning was another matter altogether. Entering the week of the 1987 tournament, Mize was 36th on the OWGR. By the end of the regulation 72 holes, he was tied for the lead with two of the top-three players on the ranking, No.1 Greg Norman and No.3 Seve Ballesteros. As good as a player as he was and as well as he had played, he wasn’t expected to win the subsequent playoff.  

“I wasn’t really thinking about any of that,” he admits. “I had been in a six-man playoff with Greg at the Kemper Open the previous year, which he had won, so I had experience of being in that situation with him before. And Seve, he and I had played a lot of golf together by that point, too, so I naturally respected him and knew exactly what he was capable of.

"But hey, we had played 72 holes and there was nothing to separate us. So, I wasn’t thinking about their reputations or rankings or whatever. My focus was solely on the playoff and making sure I took care of my own business.” 

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A bogey on the first extra hole, the tenth, saw Ballesteros eliminated. It was now a straight shootout between Mize and Norman. Both found the fairway off the tee at 11 but when Mize missed the green to the left with his second and Norman just about clung on to the putting surface with own approach, it was very much ‘Advantage Australia’.  

“I was pretty disappointed with myself after my second, but I had to forget about it quickly and, when I got down there, it was clear there was really only one shot I could play. In a way, that was to my advantage. I mean, yes, it was an extraordinarily difficult shot but the worst thing you can be around any golf course – and particularly Augusta National – is indecisive. It was do or die. I knew I had to hit an aggressive shot but one judged to perfection to put the pressure back on Greg.”

Perfection it was. In the TV booth, the CBS commentators fell silent for 41 seconds after the ball hit the hole, rendered speechless by the improbability of what they had just witnessed. When they finally did speak, Steve Melnyk – himself a native of Georgia – did so for everybody. “Words,” he gasped, “do not do justice to the greatness of that shot.”

Even now, almost 35 years later, Mize admits he struggles to articulate the moment the ball hit the hole. “It was total excitement, total elation. I mean, it’s – it’s almost indescribable. It was a dream come true just to play in The Masters, so to win it was beyond my wildest expectations.”

One suspects he’s been lost in this moment many times in the last three-and-a-half decades.

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“You know, the Masters is a special tournament for any golfer to win but for a kid from Augusta, it’s unbelievable. Undoubtedly, it’s the highlight of my career. Nothing I could do, indeed nothing I ever did, would top it. It has been the greatest blessing of my professional life.”

The almost-absurd perfection of the day was completed by Nicklaus, whom Mize had so enjoyed watching on the grounds as a kid, helping him into the Green Jacket. The winner of the tournament in record-breaking fashion a year earlier, Nicklaus was on-hand to congratulate him at the prize-giving ceremony.

“I can’t remember exactly what he said but it was along the lines of ‘you played like a champion today’,” recalls Mize. “He couldn’t have been nicer and to get that kind of compliment from somebody I had looked up to for so long just made the whole thing so much more special.”

Jack Nicklaus And Larry Mize

As a champion, Mize enjoys a lifetime exemption to The Masters, as well as many other perks. One of those is an invitation to the Champions’ Dinner, held on the Tuesday of Masters week.

It is, in effect, an extremely exclusive club within an extremely exclusive club and, each year, the previous year’s champion sets the menu. In the last 35 years, Mize has seen an array of eclectic dishes put in front of the former winners.

“I remember after one of his wins, [Nick] Faldo served a Shepherd’s Pie, which was fantastic,” recalls Mize. “I mean, I love meat and potatoes, so it was always going to get my approval, right? Vijay [Singh] did a fantastic Thai dish.

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"Another year, Phil [Mickelson] served a wonderful pasta meal. It’s always a fantastic night. The only thing I couldn’t bring myself to try was Sandy Lyle’s haggis. I wanted to but I just couldn’t pull the trigger.”

Mize, now 63, will play in his 39th Masters this year. He hasn’t missed a single one since his debut in 1984. For context, Phil Mickelson has made 27 consecutive appearances. Tiger Woods’ best streak ended at 19 when he sat out 2014. Jack Nicklaus could ‘only’ manage 40. The record for consecutive starts is held by the late Arnold Palmer, who made 50.

Mize has seen many of the game’s greatest players make legends of themselves at Augusta and hopes to be around to see many more follow suit.

One of those fancied to do so is Bryson DeChambeau, a man whose prodigious power has made him a favourite for a green jacket. How the tournament committee might mitigate his prospects has become a hot topic of discussion, with many speculating that significant alterations to the course might be required to keep it relevant. Mize doesn’t believe major changes are needed.

“There’s so much more to Augusta National than being able to drive it big,” he says. “It’s a true ‘second shot’ golf course. Hit it as far as you want but if your shot into the green isn’t very good, you’re not going to do well. The list of champions over the years demonstrates that. Seve, Jack, Arnold, Bernhard [Langer], Tiger – all good drivers of the ball but exceptional iron players.

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“You know, people talk about Bryson and they like to mention what club he’s hitting into greens. To me, it’s not the club but where you’re hitting it from that matters.

"Positions are so important and what doesn’t get talked about enough is the fact that Bryson, with his length, could find some pretty awkward positions if he doesn’t drive it perfect. So, perhaps they’ll need to make some little tweaks here and there but I don’t think they need to do anything hugely significant.”

Larry Mize Augusta 2016

You can hear the smile in Mize’ voice as he talks about his favourite spots at Augusta – on the property, it’s the Par-3 course; on the course itself, its down by the 13th tee – and his favourite things to eat and drink within the grounds.

“Give me a grape juice and ginger ale, and a ham and cheese on rye and I’m happy,” he laughs.

It’s a place and a tournament that has had a significant impact on his life and career and, for that, he’s enormously grateful. In his home, his Masters trophy is on display in the break room and the wall of his study contains a framed picture of Nicklaus congratulating him on his win.  

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Come April, he’ll return to his hometown, turn off Washington and drive up Magnolia Lane. Inside the clubhouse at the top of the most famous 330 yards in golf, he’ll go up to the second floor where he’ll push through the doors and into the Champions Locker Room. A brass plaque bearing his name will direct Mize to his own locker, within which he’ll find his green jacket waiting for him.  

“How does it feel to put it on? Very nice.” Once again, the smile in his voice is unmistakable. “It’s so special. To go there on the Tuesday morning and to put it on, it’s – it’s hard to explain what it means to me. Yeah, I’m a lucky man.”

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Pics: Getty Images

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This article first appeared in issue 191 of bunkered (February 2022). Click here for our latest subscription offer. International subscriptions also available.

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