Larry Mize is often reminded about the biggest victory of his golf career, and the shot that preceded it. Though it happened 30 years ago at Augusta National, Mize is still asked about it constantly, including this week at Caves Valley Golf Club for the Constellation Senior Players Championship.
"It's a good memory, obviously," Mize said Thursday. "I get asked about it when I'm out on the golf course, when I run into golfers, at pro-am parties. It's a great subject for me, the golfing thrill of a lifetime."
Not that he's ever tried to recreate the 100-foot pitch to beat Greg Norman on the first playoff hole in sudden death to win the 1987 Masters.
"That's one of the best decisions I ever made. I never went back [to the spot]," Mize, 58, said. "I wanted to keep the memory pure, so every time I see the shot [on replays], that was the last time I was there. … Whether I hit it close or chipped it or hit it in the water, it would have just ruined because then I'd be thinking, 'Oh yeah, remember when I went back and did that?' I didn't, so it was a good thing I didn't."
Seeking his second major championship and only his second win since joining what was then called the Champions Tour in 2008, Mize used a birdie putt of about half that length on the par-4 ninth hole Thursday to propel him into the first-round lead with an 8-under-par 64.
Mize leads by a shot over three-time defending champion Bernhard Langer, who won twice at Augusta during his career, as well as former U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin and left-hander Steve Flesch. Journeymen Brandt Jobe and Scott Dunlap are two strokes behind at 6-under 66.
"Actually scores are a little better than I thought they would be, because it's a good golf course, a really good golf course," Mize said after his best score since an opening-round 65 in the 2014 Constellation Senior Players Championship at Fox Chapel Golf Club in Pittsburgh.
"I'm very pleased with the round, obviously. To shoot 64 you've always got to get the putter going. The putter was working really well today. I made some good putts. I made a bomb on No. 9 that if you'd tell me I could two-putt, I'd have picked it up and never would have putted it."
Though Mize is leading, the fact that Langer is only one shot behind is difficult to ignore. The 59-year-old German has won the year’s first two majors, helping him pass Jack Nicklaus to become the first PGA Tour Champion player to reach 10 major titles.
Certainly Mize is aware of Langer’s presence.
“You know if Bernhard gets up there, he normally doesn’t leave,” Mize said. “He’s normally there. So if he doesn’t get off to a good start, he might get there, but getting off to a good start, now you know he’s there and he’ll probably be someone to reckon with the whole week. … I think it’s a shot-maker’s golf course, which is right up his alley.”
Playing with Jobe and reigning U.S. Senior Open champion Kenny Perry (1-over 73) in the featured group of the first two rounds, Langer also had his putter working.
After watching a 10-footer for birdie on the par-4 opening hole lip out, Langer got up-and-down for birdie out of the bunker on the par-5 second hole, made a 25-footer for birdie on the par-3 third and later ran in three straight birdie putts between 10 and 15 feet to close the front nine in 31. He then made consecutive birdies on the par-4 11th and par-5 12th before finishing with six straight pars.
“Not anything from very long range, but I made a couple of decent putts and I had a few other chances,” said Langer, apparently unaffected by the flap caused last week by golf analyst Brandel Chamblee, who accused Langer of cheating by anchoring his long putter. “But the greens are tough. They’re quite fast, downhill and a lot of break, so it’s not the easiest putting surfaces.”
It wasn’t a long putt that jump-started Pavin’s round, but an approach with a pitching wedge from 120 yards on the par-4 11th that took “big bounce” and disappeared into the cup for eagle. After making the turn at 2-under, a follow up birdie on the par-5 12th and subsequent birdies on 15 and 16 gave Pavin a temporary share of the lead with Langer until both were passed by Mize.
Asked when the last time he was in contention at a major championship, Pavin hesitated.
“Gosh, I’m not sure,” said Pavin, 57. “I know I was in contention when Kenny [Perry] won the Senior Open in Omaha [in 2013], I was up near the lead all week. … It’s been a while. It’s been a couple of years.”
Pavin, whose most famous shot was a 4-wood approach on the final hole of regulation to help secure the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, has won only once in eight years on the PGA Tour Champions. A year ago, he was out most of the season after tearing a tendon in his right elbow.
Even before the injury, Pavin’s success on the PGA Tour Champions was fleeting.
“I think it’s very competitive out here,” Pavin said. “I think the guys play really well. I think the hardest thing out here is guys usually don’t back up coming down the stretch. On the regular tour, you see some backing up happening. Guys have won lots of tournaments, they know how to win, they know how handle the pressure.”
One player in particular.
Like most, Mize is a bit in awe of Langer’s 32 PGA Tour Champions victories.
“I don’t know if words can do justice to what he’s done to stay that focused, that on top of it,” Mize said. “Like it’s one thing to be the best, but to be the best for so long — I think that’s very difficult, to stay that dedicated to it. It’s amazing what he’s been able to do out here.”