Billy Mayfair is the human equivalent of beige. On the golf
course he displays all the charisma of Al Gore, and in
conversation he can put you to sleep faster than a cup of warm
milk. Of course, it is Mayfair's demeanor--unflappable may be
the most polite way to describe it--that is his best attribute
as a golfer. He has won four tournaments since the summer of
1995, mostly by remaining unmoved in crunch time and playing
safe, boring golf while others go haywire around him.
Mayfair's flawless play at last week's Buick Open in suburban
Detroit was typical, even if the rest of the week wasn't.
Mayfair was wracked with the flu when he arrived at Warwick
Hills Golf & Country Club. He received a birthday serenade from
the gallery during the first round, sent a woman to the hospital
with a wayward seven-iron shot on Saturday, then capped a
two-shot win over Scott Verplank with a misty-eyed speech on the
18th green. All this excitement from a guy who would proclaim on
Sunday night that his favorite pastime outside of golf is
playing with his two puppies. "When Billy gets around the lead,
he doesn't falter," said Tiger Woods, who tied for fourth, four
shots back. "He's solid." That's a word often invoked to
describe Mayfair and his game.
Perhaps Mayfair has never bothered to acquire a personality
because his resume has so much pizzazz. While at Arizona State
he won the 1986 U.S. Public Links and the following year won the
U.S. Amateur and the Fred Haskins Award, given to the nation's
top college player. In 1990, only his second season on Tour, he
finished a strong 12th on the money list. Three years later, at
27, he won his first tournament, the Greater Milwaukee Open.
Mayfair broke through in '95. Only Greg Norman finished higher
on the money list, and Mayfair's two victories were monuments to
his steady play. At the Western Open he made just one bogey over
the final 40 holes and stiffed a seven-iron to the 72nd green
for a birdie that broke a five-way tie. He closed his year with
a victory at the Tour Championship.
In the next two years, though, Mayfair all but disappeared--not
because he was a casualty of the excesses that often come with
success but from an overabundance of his natural restraint.
"After '95 people were expecting a lot of me, and I started
trying to be a little too careful when I was playing," he says.
In '96, Mayfair fell to 55th on the money list. Last year he was
79th and would have been much lower had he not tied for second
in the season-ending Las Vegas Invitational. That $158,000 check
more than doubled his earnings and put him on the road to
recovery. "The thing that was missing the past two years was
confidence," says Todd Rolfes, Mayfair's coach and occasional
Mayfair's constitution was tested earlier this year at the
Nissan Open, in which he made a do-or-die birdie on the 72nd
hole to force a playoff with Woods. Even now the contrast
between the two golfers can hardly be overstated. Mayfair turned
32 last Thursday, but with his lumpy physique and weathered
complexion he looks at least 10 years older and, compared to the
immaculately tailored Woods, seems to have slept in his clothes.
At the Nissan, though, the final score was substance 1, style 0.
On the first extra hole Woods took a mighty swing and whipsawed
his ball into the cabbage, from which he was lucky to reach the
green. Mayfair, meanwhile, bunted a drive down the middle and
almost holed his approach shot. The painless birdie brought him
the championship. "Between your ears is what's going to make you
win or lose out here," says Mayfair. "It's pretty simple."
The next week at Doral, Mayfair tied for second, but in the
following 11 tournaments, leading up to last week's, he finished
no better than 31st, which he attributes to a spectacular
putting slump. By the time he arrived at Warwick Hills, Mayfair
was so desperate that he was packing a new putter, his first
change of blades since he was a sophomore in college.
In the days before the tournament, Mayfair was as sick as his
putting stroke. The flu kept him in bed on Aug. 4, and he was
still weary during the opening round, but he nevertheless gutted
out a 70. The highlight came at the 18th hole, where the large
gallery sang Happy Birthday when he reached the green. By
Friday, Mayfair was back to full strength, and he began to get
the feel with his new putter, but a 69 still left him six shots
back of the leader, Brandel Chamblee. On moving day, though,
Mayfair relocated to the top of the leader board with a 65, the
best round of a windy day.
Mayfair's only hiccup came on the 199-yard par-3 8th hole, where
he jacked his tee shot long and left. Based on the way the ball
sprang about 30 yards back across the green, Mayfair thought he
had struck a tree. In fact, the ball had caromed off the noggin
of an unfortunate spectator, who received six stitches. Upon
reaching the scene, Mayfair tendered his apologies to the dazed
and bleeding woman and gave her a ball as a souvenir.
Understandably rattled, he failed to get up and down. Mayfair
opened his postround press conference by saying, "My first
concern is about the lady I hit. I feel really bad." Pause.
"Other than that, it was a wonderful day."
Sunday was equally wondrous. Mayfair birdied the first two
holes--out of a fairway bunker on the 1st and with a chip-in on
the 2nd--to put some distance between himself and the pack, then
played methodically as all the would-be contenders labored to
generate momentum. Verplank came out of nowhere with a 64, but
when he ran out of holes, he had only tied Mayfair for the lead,
at 15 under, and Mayfair still had six holes to play. He birdied
the 12th to regain the lead, and another birdie at the 14th
ended the suspense. Same as at the Nissan, Mayfair played a
bogey-free round despite the Sunday pressure. "Billy doesn't
miss greens, he doesn't make mistakes, and he doesn't beat
himself," says Steve Stricker, who faded to sixth while playing
with Mayfair in the final pairing on Sunday.
Such declarations make Mayfair sound like an automaton, but he's
actually a big softy. He choked up during the trophy ceremony,
dedicating the victory to Renay Appleby, the wife of Tour player
Stuart Appleby, who was killed on July 23 in a freak traffic
accident in London. Renay and Mayfair's wife, Tammy, were
frequent tennis partners, and the couples were close. They had
dined together following the third round of the British Open,
only five days before Renay died.
Following the dedication Mayfair talked about perspective, and
perhaps that's what it takes to appreciate him. In a world
blinded by flash, Mayfair offers something more elusive. "He
gets the job done," says Stricker.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL SOLID GOLD Mayfair, who had stared down Woods earlier this season, never looked back on Sunday after making a pair of early birdies. [Billy Mayfair golfing]