Once there was a good but dull golfer named Jeff Maggert. He
grew up in The Woodlands, the massive planned community outside
Houston, right on a golf course. He married his high school
sweetheart, and they had two children. He was good at golf and
he liked it, but he showed no particular passion for it. He
exuded competence and nothing more. He didn't practice much. His
career was uneventful. He joined the Tour in 1991. He left us
last year, at the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San
Francisco. Over those 7 1/2 years, he played in 202 events, won
one of them and finished second in a dozen others. He was the
poster boy for the anonymous, check-cashing touring pro,
courteous but dour.
Then at Olympic, a new golfer named Jeff Maggert was born. He
made a move, off the course, that nobody saw coming. He told his
wife of 12 years, Kelli, the mother of his children, that he
wanted a divorce. Kelli Maggert was one of the most popular
wives on Tour: cute, vivacious, outgoing. Everything the old
Jeff Maggert was not. Everyone figured they were perfect
together, that Kelli and Jeff were another example in the long
tradition of opposites attracting. Divorce? Kelli was shocked.
Jeff's parents were shocked. The Tour was shocked. "You should
go to Las Vegas and set up a tent and sell tickets," Steve
Elkington, a fellow Houstonian, told Maggert. "You fooled all of
us. You're better than Siegfried and Roy."
The thing is, Jeff Maggert had been practicing not sleight of
hand, but sleight of life. "There was this perception that
everything was hunky-dory with us," says Maggert. "I took a
certain pleasure in keeping part of my life private."
After Olympic, Maggert went public, and he has been doing
unexpected things ever since. The first act in his new life was
to start showing up at tournaments with his new girlfriend,
28-year-old Michelle Austin of Greensboro, N.C. In February, he
won the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship--and its $1
million first prize--with Austin and her seven-year-old son,
Phillip, in the gallery. Afterward, Maggert went out and bought
several shirts for himself. Just drove out to the mall, took out
his credit card and bought them. Nobody could ever remember
Maggert buying shirts for himself before, but that's what he
did. In April, he had Austin caddie for him at the Greater
Greensboro Chrysler Classic. He spent the week making birdies
and grinning like a schoolboy escorting a trophy prom date. A
few weeks later, at the Houston Open, he asked Austin to marry
him. On Tour, players and caddies and wives began asking, What's
up with Maggert? What's he going to do next?
The likely answer is win the U.S. Open next week at Pinehurst.
You could reach this conclusion on logic alone. He's about the
straightest driver in golf. He's made himself into a superb
chipper. He's the right age (35). There's no course or player or
event that scares him. He's straight out of the Lee Janzen-Andy
North-Scott Simpson mold. He has four top 10 finishes in the
last five Opens. But to hell with logic. The reason he's likely
to win the Open is because he's a new man. He's in love. His
heart is young.
But don't confuse this with a happy story, not an entirely happy
one, anyhow. Along with a fresh start, divorce, Maggert will
tell you, creates hurt and grief, confusion and awkwardness. He
is an expert in these areas. His parents were married when they
were 18, in 1960, and they separated 30 years later, in 1990,
the year Maggert led the Ben Hogan tour in earnings. When
Maggert first learned that his parents were splitting up, he was
angry with both of them. He wanted his parents' lives to be just
like the lives of the parents he had seen on TV.
In the ensuing years, his thinking evolved. He saw his mother
and father happier apart than they had been together. He began
to wonder why they hadn't divorced much earlier. Then he
realized that he and Kelli were repeating the pattern
established by his parents. Kelli and Jeff were teenagers when
they started going out, classmates at McCullough High in The
Woodlands. "She was really cute," says Steve Jurgensen, who was
at McCullough then and is now a Tour player. "He was a cool
guy." The cute girl and the cool guy married when she was 21 and
he was 22.
"At 16, two young people can't look each other in the eye and
say, 'Yeah, I want to spend the rest of my life with you.'"
Maggert said. He was sitting in a deserted dining room at the
Kemper Open. He spent 3 1/2 hours discussing his life. Afternoon
turned into dusk and dusk turned into night. He never fidgeted,
never even got up, just sipped a single Diet Coke. Occasionally,
a player would come through--Billy Andrade, Mark O'Meara, Vijay
Singh--but Maggert did not acknowledge them. He has few close
friends on Tour. "When you're 16," he said, "you're mostly
interested in physical attraction. I had the fantasy of getting
married, having kids, living happily ever after. My parents
married when they were young. My brother, the same. I was just
going with the flow. Kelli and I had dated for a long time.
Getting married was what you did next."
Maggert's not a man who reads much. He does not have a college
degree. But he's capable of being profound. He's highly
introspective and speaks like a man who has spent a lot of time
alone. "The more I started thinking about my parents, the more I
got to thinking about my own situation," Maggert said. "As a
parent, you worry about your kids more than anything. The best
thing you can do for your kids is be honest. It's important for
kids to see parents in a happy marriage, and ours wasn't."
He and Kelli had gone to marriage counselors for years. Maggert
says it helped him, but not the marriage. He praises Kelli as a
homemaker and as a mother to their children, 10-year-old Matt
and eight-year-old Macy. He assigns no blame to her for the
failure of the marriage. The underlying problem, in his opinion,
was both very simple and terribly complex. They couldn't talk.
Maggert was craving the opportunity to talk to somebody. On the
Saturday night of the 1998 Greater Greensboro Classic, he met
someone he could talk to. He was at a private party in a private
house. There was a woman from a catering company tending bar.
That was the first time Maggert saw Michelle Austin. They talked
that night, at length. Austin returned home to her son and her
diary and wrote in it, "He's the one. It's too bad he's
married." The next day, she watched her first professional golf
event. Maggert shot a final-round 72 to finish 16th. Too bad for
Jeff, she thought, he won't get paid. She thought you had to win
to make money. Now she knows better. Maggert earned $30,863 at
Several weeks passed, with no communication between them.
Maggert found himself thinking often of Austin. He admired what
she was doing, raising a child as a single mother, attending
college full time, working on the side. He wanted to call her,
and one night during the Byron Nelson Classic, he did. Maggert
picked up the phone in his room in the Four Seasons hotel in
Irving, Texas, and reached Austin in Greensboro. They spoke for
nearly four hours. Soon after, they were E-mailing one another.
He would return to his hotel room after a round, plug in his
laptop and see if he had mail from Austin. He was saying things
he had never said before, writing things he had never written
before, feeling things he had never felt before. They almost
never discussed golf. "I think Jeff just wanted someone to talk
to," Austin says. "I think he was very lonely. He said to me,
'You let me talk.'"
Several more weeks, crammed with E-mails and telephone
conversations, passed. In mid-June, Maggert and Austin met in
person for the second time, when she came up for the weekend of
the Buick Classic in Rye, N.Y. Because it was pouring, and
because she was spending the weekend with a well-known married
man, Austin seldom left the hotel. In a single weekend the
relationship was cemented. Maggert had decided on a new course.
The next week, in San Francisco at the Open, Jeff told his wife
of 12 years and the mother of his two children that the marriage
had to end. He told her she could have whatever she wanted when
they divvied up their assets. His only concern was custody. He
wanted to see his kids as much as he possibly could. By December
the divorce was made final.
"This is probably as good as a divorce could be," Kelli Maggert
says. She is remarkably calm when discussing her marriage. "He's
spending more time with the kids. I now see Jeff more the way
other people do, as aloof and uncommunicative. In the long run,
I think Michelle and I will talk more than Jeff and I ever did.
She's a communicator."
Maggert's mother, Vicki Benzel of Houston, loves Kelli and was
angry when she learned of the divorce. "I told him he might
regret the divorce someday because of the children," says
Benzel, who works for a conservative Christian political group.
"I'm glad I [stayed married] for the sake of Jeff and his
brother. I don't know Michelle very well. I'm hopeful she's
going to free Jeff up, but Jeff has things locked in his head
that no one will ever know. It has been a stumbling block for
him in golf. He has a little hang-up somewhere on winning. He
likes to blend into the woodwork."
In the next year or so, Austin and Maggert plan to marry. Austin
is now moving into Maggert's house in The Woodlands, not far
away from where Kelli lives with Matt and Macy. There are 55,000
people living in The Woodlands, which has its own schools and
hospitals and churches and movie theaters and malls. It's a big
place, but self-contained, and sooner or later people who are
acquainted bump into one another. Phillip Austin and Macy
Maggert could attend the same school next year, and they get
along well. Kelli is dating a man, a doctor who lives in The
Woodlands. Kelli and the doctor ran into Michelle and Jeff at a
party not long ago. "She came up and introduced herself and
talked to me like she knew me," Austin says. "I couldn't believe
how calm she was."
Maggert thinks highly of Kelli's doctor friend. He thinks the
doctor is a good role model for his kids. The whole scene is
oddly cozy. Maybe it's a good thing. Or maybe it's a mammoth
exercise in group passive-aggressive behavior. "I'd have been
more comfortable," Austin says, "if Kelli had said, 'I can't
believe you did this. You're an awful person.'"
Who knows what will happen next. Kent Maggert, Jeff's father,
wishes his son had taken more time before committing himself to
marriage again. "He's been a one-woman man since the age of 16,"
he says. "I'd have liked to see him sow a few wild oats, to use
Maggert says he has no oats to sow, wild or otherwise. "Michelle
and I didn't talk at all in September, October and November,
because she didn't want to have any influence on my decision to
go through with the divorce," he says. "I was going crazy
because I missed her to death, but it made me think for myself.
I have a tendency to listen to outsiders instead of listening to
The hardest questions now are nothing more than a riddle for
amateur psychologists. Did an unhappy marriage help Maggert's
career or inhibit it? Will Austin improve Maggert's golf or
distract him? Nobody knows. The early evidence suggests that the
new Maggert will be a better golfer than the old one. Maggert
himself cannot say. What Michelle has done, Maggert says, is
improve his life. She has helped him become a better father and
a better man. Whether that makes him a better golfer, time will
Austin has her own ideas. "I think he's going to win again,
soon," she says. She's a live wire, new to golf. She says she
shot a 98 recently--in the first 18-hole round of her life. Her
golfing goal is to play in the AT&T Pebble Beach National
Pro-Am, with her husband. "I think the best is in front of him.
For me, too."
She is asked, Does anybody really know Jeff Maggert? "Oh, yeah,"
Austin says. "He can't even go in to the IHOP."
No, no. Does anybody really know him? "I do," she says. "I
really think I do. My job is to let him be the person he wants
to be. It's not hard. All you have to do is listen."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL Tee for two Jeff and Michelle's romance flowered last spring after a flood of E-mails.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Major player Maggert has four top 10s in the last five Opens, including a fourth in '97 (below).
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL Love boat Jeff and Michelle plan to marry in the next year.
Taking our cue from the USGA, which has made an Open tradition
of mischievously grouping players who have something in common,
we made up an entire 156-person field out of threesomes. In
each, the golfers have a common bond. Can you guess what it is?
The answers are on page G32.
Jose Maria Olazabal
Bob Shave Jr.
Chi Chi Rodriguez
ANSWERS: 6:30 a.m.: College coaches. 6:40 a.m.: Lost to Tiger
Woods in U.S. Amateur final. 6:50 a.m.: Presidential monikers. 7
a.m.: Bowled 300 games. 7:10 a.m.: Recently fired caddies. 7:20
a.m.: Spain's best. 7:30 a.m.: Involved in rules disputes. 7:40
a.m.: Wear knickers. 7:50 a.m.: Played football in college. 8
a.m.: Lefties. 8:10 a.m.: Recovering alcoholics. 8:20 a.m.: All
wet. 8:30 a.m.: Ryder Cup captains from Texas. 8:40 a.m.:
Dictatorial monikers. 8:50 a.m.: Perry interesting. 9 a.m.:
Uneasy riders. 9:10 a.m.: Can go to the hoop. 9:20 a.m.: TV
announcers. 9:30 a.m.: Georgia Techies. 9:40 a.m.: Diabetics.
9:50 a.m.: Tradesmen. 10 a.m.: Games are ship-shape. 10:10 a.m.:
Sons of entertainers. 10:20 a.m.: Holed shot from fairway on
final hole to win a tournament by one. 10:30 a.m.: Lost by one
when players above holed shot from fairway on final hole. 10:40
a.m.: Hibernal. 10:50 a.m.: Confronted with tragic death. 11
a.m.: Bad hair. 11:10 a.m.: Answer to Doc. 11:20 a.m.: Recently
divorced. 11:30 a.m.: City slickers. 11:40 a.m.: Qualified for
U.S. Open in golf and tennis. 11:50 a.m.: Extreme tempers. Noon:
Country cousins. 12:10 p.m.: Play righthanded, putt lefthanded.
12:20 p.m.: Left mark on game. 12:30 p.m.: Well-groomed. 12:40
p.m.: Stare masters. 12:50 p.m.: III's company. 1 p.m.: Sons of
basketball coaches. 1:10 p.m.: Birds of a feather. 1:20 p.m.:
Struck by lightning. 1:30 p.m.: Pals. 1:40 p.m.: Had putting
styles outlawed. 1:50 p.m.: Group encounter. 2 p.m.: Warriors.
2:10 p.m.: Boxed for money. 2:20 p.m.: Brand names. 2:30 p.m.:
Played pro baseball. 2:40 p.m.: Toasts of the town. 2:50 p.m.:
Cancer survivors. 3 p.m.: Huggable.
"Kelli and I had dated for a long time," Maggert says. "Getting
married was what you did next."
Says Michelle, "I'd have been more comfortable if Kelli had
said, 'I can't believe you did this.'"