In the PGA on a free pass, Mayfair could be dangerous

Billy Mayfair, with caddie Paul Fusco, is playing with a whole new attitude. (Photo: Getty Images)
Billy Mayfair, with caddie Paul Fusco, is playing with a whole new attitude. (Photo: Getty Images)

Billy Mayfair is ecstatic just to be playing at Medinah this week instead of dealing with X-rays and white-blood cell counts, says AP Columnist Jim Litke. And because he's free of the usual pressures, Mayfair is one to keep an eye on.

MEDINAH, Ill. (AP) -- A golfer who knows he's in the tournament on a free pass can be a dangerous man.

Given the events of the past two weeks, Billy Mayfair would just as soon be weighed down with the usual concerns plaguing most pros the week of the PGA Championship. Typically, those would include making the cut, cashing a check large enough to cover expenses, finding a cure for a balky putter or tweaking a backswing to paper over a nagging injury.

Mayfair, on the other hand, was grateful just to be able to open his eyes Thursday morning, and wasn't worried about much after that. By the time he broke a sweat loosening up on the first tee, well, nothing short of ecstatic would accurately describe his mood.

"The sun was out and it was just a beautiful sight," Mayfair said. "I can't explain how great it was just to be here."

Mayfair didn't go into any detail about how beautiful it was, or how remarkable his up-and-down opening round of 69 was -- perhaps because he was afraid that talking too much would jinx the day, his golf or himself. It was akin to the feeling he had two weeks ago while huddling with a handful of doctors.

The longer the explanations ran, the more certain Mayfair became the "C-word" would spill out.

He and his girlfriend, Tami Proctor, had gone for lunch when the diagnosis -- testicular cancer -- was confirmed, then they had to wait several more hours before doctors could run dye through his body to determine whether, or how far, the disease had spread.

"Waiting for three or four hours and thinking about it," Mayfair recalled, "that was probably the scariest thing of all."

Just as he did, we'll spare you the details of the surgery and the recovery, instead letting Proctor provide this neat summary:

"Two weeks ago, he was under the knife. A week ago, he wasn't cleared to be here. To be sitting a 3-under," she said, beaming for emphasis, "makes me very, very happy."

The funny thing is that neither of them seemed the least bit surprised by Mayfair's progress across Medinah Country Club's manicured prairie -- not when he rocketed up the leader board with three birdies in the last five holes for a front-nine 32 and threw in two more at Nos. 10 and 11, nor when he tossed half of those strokes back with three bogeys in a five-hole stretch near the end.

When Mayfair arrived for a practice round Tuesday, he was asked the inevitable questions about how much he appreciated his great good fortune, whether "the fairways look greener and the sky bluer?"

He began his answer, "Everything looks great, trust me," then segued into how familiar and fun it felt to be out walking and focusing on golf shots instead of X-rays and white-blood cell counts. What he found even more fun was focusing on golf shots and keeping score. Puttering around the house the last two weeks, he hadn't swung a club longer than a 6-iron and hadn't made a swing that counted.

That all changed the second he clambered onto the first tee and the feeling was so invigorating that the second Mayfair cranked the throttle on the birdie machine, he made sure to check that he still remembered where the brake was. The saying in golf is that you can't win a tournament on Thursday, but you can sure lose it, and while he wanted to stay aggressive, the last he wanted to do was go over the top.

"If I was going this way Sunday, that might be a different story," Mayfair recalled telling himself. "It's still Thursday."

Only half of Thursday, as it turned out. Medinah's back nine is a little longer and a little hillier, and the adrenaline began ebbing soon enough. At the long par-4 16th, Mayfair surprised himself momentarily by leaving an approach shot well short of the green. Was the spell broken?

"I wasn't able to work out, get into shape and do the usual exercising before I came here. And I hadn't actually played for a month, because I took two weeks off before I was diagnosed.

"Mentally and physically," he said finally, "today wore me out."

Mayfair turned 40 less than two weeks ago, and only last season his game was in such tatters that he needed a one-time exemption from the career money list to keep his PGA Tour card. No sooner did his play bounce back than his marriage broke up.

Two days earlier, Mayfair called this "definitely ... the hardest year of life-changing things," but you wouldn't have gleaned that by looking at him heading into the locker room after shooting 69. He is, after all, here on a free pass.

"I've got a new outlook," he said and laughed. "At least until I make my first double-bogey."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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