How John Mahaffey pulled off the greatest comeback in PGA Championship history

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There was darkness around John Mahaffey when he finished the first round of the 1978 PGA Championship. Not the sky, but in his mind, and in his mood. His game was a wreck, his chances bleak. Already he was eight shots behind.

Plus, there had been the recent past, with all its trials. He had arrived on the PGA Tour known for his talent and a gift for doing imitations, but lots of things had gone wrong. He had endured a number of physical woes, some turbulence in his personal life with a divorce, the painful memories of letting a couple of U.S. Opens get away, losing a playoff in 1975 and a Sunday lead in ’76. “You keep knocking on that door,” he said, “and you wonder if it’ll ever open.”

Looking back, that Thursday at Oakmont at the '78 PGA Championship was his crossroads, at the age of 30. The moment of a truth for a Texan — who considered Ben Hogan his inspiration and his mentor — to find his way, or not.

Decades later, let him explain it.

“In ’78, I had only made about $10,000 up until that point. I had been struggling and playing really poorly. I opened with a 75 and was a little dismayed. So I spent the rest of the day at the practice tee and didn’t go home until dark. I felt like I might have found something.

“The next three days were probably some of the best golf I ever played in my life, tee to green, and I was putting like Ben Crenshaw.”

What followed that opening-round disaster was the greatest rally in the history of the PGA Championship, a crushing disappointment for Tom Watson — and the weekend that the golf gods did a U-turn for John Mahaffey.

“It was a career-changer for me,” he said, “and a life changer as well.”

Let us remember.

Chasing down Watson

It is Sunday, August 6, 1978. Mahaffey had come alive with 67 and 68 in the second and third rounds, but Watson is still a cloud of dust, far off on the horizon, seven shots ahead. Mahaffey walks to the first tee hardly pondering paths to victory.

“I wanted to finish in the top five because I knew for sure that would get me in a lot of golf tournaments,” he says now. “I never thought that way, but I never thought I’d have a chance to win either, so I was thinking if I can just take a good check and make sure I could finish in the top 125 [in money for the season] ... things like that.

“It just turned out that day was magical.”

As Mahaffey reaches No. 6, nothing has changed on the leaderboard. He is still seven shots behind, 14 holes to play. Then things begin to happen.

He birdies from 35 feet on No. 6, and 12 on No. 8. Two Watson bogeys close the gap, but then Watson eagles No, 9 to push the lead back to five over Mahaffey and four over Jerry Pate.  A back nine to play, and Watson still looking uncatchable.

Then comes No. 10.

“On 10, I hit it on the front of the green and made about a 60-footer that broke about 60 feet,” Mahaffey says. This, while Watson is taking a double bogey.

“That was a three-shot swing, and then I birdied the next hole. Game on.”

By No. 13, they are tied. On No. 14, Mahaffey takes the lead with a birdie but gives it back on No. 16. Pate has a moment at the top, but loses it on No. 18. When 72 holes are done, Mahaffey, Watson and Pate are all 8-under par. Mahaffey has charged his way into a sudden death playoff with a Sunday 66, Watson has retreated into it with a 73. It is the first three-player playoff in PGA Championship history.

“It just turned out that day was magical.”

Another major is within Mahaffey’s grasp. Just like those two U.S. Opens, back to back.

“With that kind of disappointment, in my mind, I said 'OK, I’ve paid my dues. So let’s see what I can do.'"

All three par the first hole. On the second hole, a short par-4, Watson and Pate hit irons off the tee. “I hit a 3-wood off that tee and killed it down the left side,” Mahaffey says, looking back. “And it just left me an 8-iron into the green, so I could be more aggressive.”

His second shot ends up 12 feet away from the cup, from the Wanamaker Trophy, from a new world.

“It might have been one of the fastest putts that you would ever encounter anywhere in the world. That one was downgrain, downhill, sidehill, and just fast as greased lightning. It went right in the center, and I just barely touched it.

“That was probably the putt of my life.”

He senses it's good when he hits it. The ball drops in, and the 5-foot-9 man in the red pants is dancing around the green, then leaping into the arms of his caddie.

“If they say white men can’t jump, that’s not true. I think I would have dunked a basketball on that jump. All the frustration and everything else just left my body, and I just thought ... finally.”

Finally. And suddenly, everything has changed for John Mahaffey.

Such as ...

A new golf world

“All the different things that you try not to think about in the back of your mind, that I probably was thinking about in the U.S Opens — 'If I win this, what’s going to happen?' — you get ahead of yourself. That week I did not get ahead of myself. I’m proud of that fact."

And ...

“Back then we didn’t think about the money so much as winning the titles. Tom Watson and I used to talk about it before he won the [British] Open in 1975. We were sitting and talking about how you’ll be remembered in the game. Yes, you’ll be remembered for winning golf tournaments, but you really solidify that memory if you win a major championship. They call them majors for a reason, because they’re just so hard to win. Not only because the field is so much stronger, but the pressure that we put on ourselves. And to be able to climb that mountain and to actually get over the top is pretty cool.”

And ...

“With a lot of my basics, I hadn’t been paying much attention. I was just hitting balls to hit balls, instead of hitting balls with purpose. That week changed a lot of things.”

And ...

“When they announce you as a PGA champion ... you’re talking about a deal, when I was kid growing up in Kerrville, Texas playing at a municipal golf course, just a nine-hole course, and you have these 4-footers and you say, 'This is for the U.S. Open, this is for the PGA.' To actually get to live that dream was incredible.”

And ..

“How I celebrated is I won the tournament the next week.”

That was the American Optical Classic. There would be seven more victories for him on the PGA Tour before he was finished, plus a spot on the Ryder Cup. Now he is a broadcaster, and always with a good story to tell, about the weekend in 1978 when he proved that you could never count him out. The PGA trophy sits in a prominent spot in his home, signifying the moment his life and career veered into the sun.

Looking back on a major moment

“I’ve always been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time,” he says. He mentions meeting Hogan, winning the Tournament Players’ Championship just when his 10-year exemption was nearing an end. And the 1978 PGA.

The memories mean a lot. They seem reborn each August. “They always do, and they always will.”

And there is only one downside to it all.

“Tom is a very good friend. I’m not going to give him that PGA, but I had hoped later on he would win that, so he would have the career grand slam.”

Watson never did. Of that weekend at Oakmont, he once said, “Mahaffey did to me what I was doing to a lot people in those days. So I’m not haunted by that tournament.”

Still, when the two friends get together, Mahaffey said the subject of 1978 doesn’t come up much. But the rest of the world is often eager to ask. “It’s always present,” says the man who transformed his life with a few birdie putts four decades ago. “And I love that.”

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