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Tiger Tamer

Unheralded Billy Mayfair whipped the hometown hero to provide a surprise ending to the Nissan Open

If there were any doubts that golf can mess up a Hollywood ending, they were dispelled at the Nissan Open on Sunday when Billy Mayfair holed a five-foot birdie putt on the first hole of sudden death to turn a Tiger Woods star vehicle into a rerun of Fleck's Fables. The change in plot caught everyone by surprise.

After all, Woods was the one with six PGA Tour victories in 18 months as a pro. Mayfair had only three in 10 years. Woods was playing well on the West Coast, tying for second and third in the two events he had completed, while Mayfair's best finish in five starts was a 25th. Woods also was unbeaten in a pair of playoffs while Mayfair had a 1-4 record.

Therefore, when the two tied at 12-under-par 272 and headed to the tee of the par-5 18th to begin the playoff--have we mentioned that Woods led the Tour last year by making birdie or better on 52% of his par-5s?--the script called for Mayfair to fade out. Instead, he refused to let the legend grow.

Until Mayfair's final stroke the story had played out perfectly. Woods returned to his Los Angeles roots to play in the tournament in which he made his Tour debut in 1992 as a 16-year-old amateur. He waited until the very end to achieve full flight on a glittering, El Nino-defying day. Beginning the final round two strokes behind the 54-hole leader, Tommy Armour III, Woods took the lead with solid play while the other contenders dutifully melted away. Sure, there was a back-nine bogey to make things interesting, but over the last four holes, in the best tradition of Fairbanks and Flynn, Woods made three birdies, the last coming on the 566-yard 18th and prompting the now-famous uppercut fist pump that always brings down the house. Except, as happens so often in golf, someone else had the last word.

Waddling out of the sunset in the final threesome came Mayfair, a pasty-skinned 31-year-old who slices his putts and sometimes falters at the finish. He topped Woods with a do-or-die birdie of his own on the 72nd hole and then beat him by nearly spinning an 85-yard sand wedge shot into the hole in overtime. After Woods barely missed his 15-footer for birdie, Mayfair's gutty coup de grace left 51,000 spectators feeling like the test audience for Ishtar.

To those unfamiliar with the game's cruelties, the turnabout must have been difficult to accept. They might have wondered if the upset was the result of bad karma caused by the tournament's move from historic Riviera, which is getting ready to host the U.S. Senior Open July 23-26, to Valencia Country Club, a relatively unknown Robert Trent Jones design at the edge of the windy and desolate Angeles National Forest.

Veteran golf watchers, though, weren't as surprised. First, they know that anything can happen in sudden death. If playoffs weren't a crapshoot, men like Gary Player (3-10) and Ben Crenshaw (0-8) wouldn't have such poor records in them. Second, when Mayfair is on his game, he's a formidable player. He won the U.S. Amateur in 1987 and the Tour Championship in '95, when he earned more than $1.5 million and was second on the money list. At his best Mayfair's the kind of player who doesn't beat himself, and he was at his best at Valencia. He led after the first and second rounds, and didn't miss a fairway on Sunday, when he closed with a bogeyless, four-under 67.

Still, Woods has such a reputation for door-slamming finishes that it was startling to see him beaten mano a mano. Coming into L.A. he seemed particularly motivated. Although he had dramatically won a playoff with Ernie Els in a January European tour event in Thailand, Woods had not won in the U.S. since last July's Western Open, while Phil Mickelson and David Duval, two of the players Woods measures himself against, already had wins this season. A victory in L.A. also appealed to Woods because the Nissan gave him his first two sponsor's exemptions, and because this year the tournament was honoring its 1969 champion, 75-year-old Charlie Sifford, to whom Woods is close.

Most of all, Woods wanted to win for his mother, Kultida, who underwent abdominal surgery early last week and was hospitalized for three days. "After I came out of surgery I told him the best medicine I could have was for him to win," said Kultida, who watched the tournament from home on TV. "He said, 'I got you, Mom,' and I knew he would play well. He was disappointed when he called me afterward, but I told him I was proud of him. I prefer him to win the Masters. This helps tune him up."

Woods seemed ready from the start. He was already familiar with Valencia, having played a U.S. Open qualifier there in '94. On Thursday, in cold and blustery conditions, Woods shot 68, the first time he has opened under 70 this season. He putted poorly during a 73 on Friday, but the round included a spectacular 265-yard three-wood shot on 18 that tore through the wind before winding up 12 feet from the hole. Woods's 65 on Saturday was sparked by a 142-yard nine-iron shot on the 4th hole that he slammed home for eagle.

Even though Woods's 66 wasn't quite enough on Sunday, his play over the weekend got everyone's attention. "Tiger's swing is so solid and his ball flight is so penetrating," says Mickelson, who played with Woods for the first two rounds. "Watching his shots creates vivid mental images that I can draw from, and it helps me play better."

Woods himself allowed that "I'm playing pretty darn good." After Saturday's round he couldn't keep from smiling at the accuracy of his iron shots on the practice range. He was so relaxed and confident that evening that he tossed a football around with his friends in the parking lot of his hotel.

The next day, as Woods maneuvered his ball around Valencia with a controlled ease, he even impressed another famous L.A. golfer, O.J. Simpson. "It's amazing to be my age and have an athletic hero," says Simpson, "but I feel about Tiger the same thing I used to feel about Hugh McIlhenny and Gale Sayers. The way Tiger handles himself is an inspiration to me."

At Valencia, though, Woods was no more comfortable than Mayfair. After enduring two poor seasons--he finished 55th on the money list in '96 and 79th last year--and swing flaws that eroded what had been a positive attitude, Mayfair resolved that this season he was not going to get down on himself. He hadn't played particularly well before Valencia, but he felt mentally strong and more sure of his swing.

The Mayfairs' two rottweilers, Dallas and Tulsa, whom they take on Tour as often as possible, are among their sources of joy. With his victory on Sunday, Mayfair can afford to fly charter more often, which means no airline kennel cages for the pooches. Mayfair will also be able to give more financial assistance to his caddie, Montana Thompson. In two weeks Thompson's three-year-old son, Lucas, will undergo brain surgery to correct a life-threatening condition. Mayfair said he would pay Thompson more than the customary 10% of the winner's purse, which at the Nissan was $378,000.

Wait a minute. Heartwarming stories about dogs and kids? Maybe the Nissan Open had a Hollywood ending after all.