I kept watching him from behind the fenced in area as he was on the practice tee. I saw his name was Larry Mize because the tournament officials had put a name sign in front of where he was hitting his shots. I’m not sure which iron it was but I’m guessing an eight or nine iron. He didn’t change his club like some do after a few hits. He kept hitting with that club searching for perfection.
It was only a day or two before that I was offered tickets to this wonderful event. It was the Senior PGA Championship and it was at the Harbor Shores Golf Club in Benton Harbor Michigan. It was close to an hour from my house which was the perfect halfway point for my friend Alan and I to meet up. Alan lives about two hours away from me and he was thrilled when I offered him a ticket since neither of us had ever seen professionals play.
It’s amazing that just a few years ago this beautiful course was a dumping ground. Plant closures in Benton Harbor had left behind environmental ruin. This land was that ruin. It was 600 vacant acres bridging St. Joseph and Benton Harbor Michigan. The site was contaminated by a foundry, steel companies, an old city dump, appliance factories, and an aircraft component manufacturing site. The results were mercury and radium levels that were very unsafe. The pollution was so severe that the aircraft manufacturing site was stated by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site, because it was one of the most polluted areas in the nation. In the late 1980’s a commission was formed to find out how businesses and jobs could be brought to the area. It was determined that this dumping ground would be the center of the rebuilding project. It took quite a vision to see this polluted dumped on land filled with dangerous poisons being anything else but what it was.
Several companies and organizations worked together and formed Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment which was a nonprofit organization whose mission would be to be the master developer of the project. Mark Hessemann the managing director for Harbor Shores, used his real estate company to get the project off of the ground. Hessemann spent seventeen years working for Jack Nicklaus Design, Jack’s company that designs golf courses. If Jack could be convinced to build a course out of this barren land, the rest of the dominoes would fall into place!
To make a long story short, Jack came and formed a vision of all of the wonderful holes this land would house. The project involved the removal of 117,000 tons of trash, solid waste, and concrete from the site. That is the equivalent of a football field stacked up 65 feet high! “Once you cleared away the trash there was beautiful land underneath”, Hassemann stated.
So here I was watching Larry Mize hit shot after shot with his iron. I saw an official and asked him if we could get autographs? He said that the best place to do that was at the gate where they would have to pass to get on the driving range or leave for the first tee. Normally people get autographs with a Sharpie pen but all I had was a Bic. I had bought a program so I’m standing there waiting along with a crowd of people at the gate. Alan was with me for awhile. He was anxious to get out on the course while I was content to watch practice or stand waiting for someone to come by. At last Alan said he would come back in about half an hour. He was going to watch the actual tournament. As I was standing there I started talking to people around me. A lady took the spot to my right and she was carrying a rolled up poster. She told me she was there to get one signature and I asked her about the poster. She said that it was a picture of her husband and Tom Watson. Her husband caddied for Tom Watson years ago and it was a picture of them both together.
It’s kind of funny when you are waiting for someone to come by that could be a professional golfer. People that had golfing shoes on that weren’t dressed in blue course official shirts were all on the board! The first guy I asked had the golfing attire on. Of course you don’t want to embarrass anyone so you pretend you know them. His signature was easily readable and he commented on the page I had him sign. I just turned to a page that was titled “They are off and running.” He liked that and after he left I looked at his signature “Joe Dailey.” I had heard of a golfer named John Dailey, but not Joe. Still it was nice of him to be the first to sign my program and he seemed nice. Later someone signed my program and when he left I looked at the signature. It was an awful looking bunch of O’s. His signature looked like “OOOOOOOOOO.” Now how could anyone figure that out? A little while later I saw him coming. He had a violet looking shirt on and his face tanned through the years in the sun was unmistakable. It was Tom Watson and he walked in going toward the practice tee. As expected people started pushing through in front of him. The official stated later “that area of the line line should have been roped off.” Once Tom signed those peoples papers that pushed themselves in I was there with my program along with the lady next to me with her poster. Tom smiled and waived and was on his way. He probably figured he had signed enough and needed to work on his game.
After Tom Watson left the crowd at the gate got smaller. The lady with the poster waited hoping to catch him after he got done hitting his bucket of balls on the driving range. When he did he left a different way and everyone at the fence was disappointed and quickly left. Everyone but me it seemed. I was watching on the tee in front of me last years champion Kohki Idoki. I watched him hit his balls and he seemed like a machine. One right after the other right down the middle with his driver. Every once in awhile he would hit one straight, but not quite as far as the others. Or he would hit one straight, but not quite as straight. I guess that is why he was out there. It seemed that most of the time it was long and straight but those few that were a little shorter or a little more to the side were why he kept hitting. It’s amazing to me the fine line these players are trying to find and how they can find fault in perfectly good hits in my mind. They were all searching for that elusive perfection. I told Idoki’s caddie that I would like him to sign my book and after awhile Idoki turned around and made a writing motion to me like he had a pen in his hand. He came back by the fence and signed. His signature was in Japanese and I kidded him by asking if he ever hit a ball that wasn’t straight? He just smiled and went back to his tee to hit more consistent shots.
Just about everyone had left the fenced area after it was clear that Tom Watson wouldn’t be back. I stood there thinking that there are still some players that may come by. Suddenly walking at a brisk pace was Larry Mize. I called out if he could sign one for me and he put his brakes on and swirled in my direction. To be honest at first I didn’t recognize him. Although I watched him hitting he had his back to me. However I finally realized that it was the guy who kept hitting his iron that I had watched and mentioned to him how I saw him practicing over and over with that iron. It was a quick meeting as he signed with my Bic pen. I asked him if it wrote OK and he said it was a little light but fine. That was all and I saw that his signature was very readable and to my surprise he wrote a Bible verse after it! “Larry Mize Eph2 8:19.”
I watched Idoki some more as I started talking to a friend of his from his country. I was so impressed with the way Idoki kept practicing shot after shot even though I couldn’t find much wrong with any of them. The thing that impressed myself and my friend Alan was how these guys practiced their skills. Alan mentioned that most of them had to be worth millions, yet often after hitting on the practice tee and playing their round they were right back on the practice tee again! I caught up with Alan and we decided to go to the 18th tee. Players were paired together and we watched them hit two by two. There was a delay from the time one pairing hit until the other arrived. During that time we talked to other fans. A couple of them were older and we listened to their golf stories from the past. One guy especially was telling stories about Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, and other well known golfers he had seen in person. Again it was amazing watching these guys drive the golf ball. Most were right down the middle with one I remember driving into the long weeds on the right. We were wondering in his case if his ball was playable, but later we noticed him from a distance hitting in the middle of those weeds. His ball must have landed on the green because in a little while he was putting and moving to the next hole!
It was some time later that I was reflecting on my autographs. I showed the autograph of the all O’s to one of the fans next to me and he came up with a name that it had to be. I forget his name but it was something like “Wooslin” and obviously he emphasized the O’s. Thumbing through the book again I remembered I had a caddie sign because I liked him when we talked. I was recording my experience there and I could tell he was honored to sign my book. Again I passed Larry Mize’s autograph. His was my favorite because of the Bible verse he applied. Hmmm Larry Mize, he won the Masters one year didn’t he? It wasn’t until I got home that the memory came back to me. You see I had forgotten who it was that supplied one of my greatest golfing memories. You might laugh, but it was the shot more than who it was.
The year was 1987 and I am sitting in my living room watching the final round of the Masters Tournament. That was the year that I had become a first time father. The big talk was about if Greg Norman could finally win a major? He was the number one ranked golfer in the world but he couldn’t seem to win the big one. He had come close many times and this just could be the day for him! I like to watch golf especially if it is close and every shot means something. In this case after regulation there was a three way tie. The three tied were Greg Norman, Seve Balesteros, and Larry Mize.
When there is a tie after regulation they do a sudden death playoff. Unfortunately for Seve he missed a putt on the first sudden death hole and Greg Norman and Larry were the only ones remaining. On the second hole Norman hit his second shot on the fringe of the green. Larry on the other hand hit his far to the right. He found himself 140 feet from the hole. Since Norman was closer it was Larry who was up. I’m sitting there thinking that it will be very hard for Mize to get his ball close to the hole and get down in two. If he hits it too hard it will keep rolling right into the water. Norman was almost assured of at least getting up and down and possibly chipping his shot in! Larry hit his shot. It went in the air very low for awhile before hitting short of the green and rolling on. It kept rolling and the crowd noise got louder. Amazingly it looked like the speed was good as it rolled and rolled. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I kept watching. Not only was it a good shot it was going right for the hole and…it went right in! Larry started running around in the excitement and the crowd noise was unreal! Finally the crowd settled down and watched Greg Norman, who must have felt jinxed, miss his chip. Larry Mize had won the 1987 Masters!
Larry Mize came from a Christian family that was pretty active in their church. His dad was a deacon in the church but as Larry got older he started to drift away. Growing up in Augusta, Georgia Larry’s dream was always to play there. That became his goal and number one in his life. He still believed in God but as he described it was more of an intellectual (in his head) belief because he didn’t have Christ in his heart. “I had him in my head, but he was second to golf unfortunately.” Larry felt honored that he was able to play at Georgia Tech University. After three tries at Tour School he felt fortunate to finally get on the PGA Tour! He married a wonderful girl from Columbus Georgia and felt very content. He thought that he would make a lot of money and be famous! He won the Memphis Classic at the age of 24 and things were looking bright! He didn’t win any other events for the next couple of years but he was very satisfied with the level of his game. Somehow through his success though there was something missing. God got his attention at the event of his first born son. As Larry was sitting in the delivery room holding David, God spoke to him. “Hey! Golf’s important, It’s the way you make a living, and you need to work hard at it, but the most important thing is to get your life right with Jesus Christ and giving him charge of your life.”
On that day Larry did just that and explained the difference. “Prior to that moment I believed in God. I believed in Jesus, but I didn’t do anything about it. The best way to explain it was it was an intellectual belief. That day it became a heartfelt belief. That day I began trusting God and Jesus Christ with my life.” All of the sudden Larry was motivated. He wanted to win, not for his glory, but to be able to give God all of the glory! He wanted to be able to tell people who were waiting for his words after winning a tournament what really was important!
“One of my greatest thrills in golf was winning the Masters and one of the neat things about that was the fact that it gave me the opportunity to share my faith and say, Hey! Christians aren’t these little complacent, wimpy people. Christians are competitive, and I’m competitive. I’m a winner in this world, and I’m very successful–but I still have that personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And that relationship is the most important thing to me. Living my life for Him and pleasing Him is the most important thing.”
Years ago a plan was made for the dumped on polluted land between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. This plan was so massive in nature that it took hundreds of people to make it happen. Specialists were needed in many areas and laborers were needed for the cleanup. It took everyone doing their part to make this vision happen. It was obvious from the beginning that something needed to be done with the land. That was like the head knowledge that Larry talked about. Unless everyone with their different skills got involved the land would have just sat there as it was. The heart of the project was the actual labor that it took from all of those people that made the vision a reality! Likewise when Larry lined up that shot at the Masters God had a plan for him. When the ball miraculously found the hole the plan was in motion. Now Larry is carrying out the plan for his life. For one glorious moment Larry reached perfection. Yet through the years that followed he was far from perfect. Larry Mize was not the big winner on the tour he had originally visioned but you won’t hear him complaining. In fact Larry is happier than he has ever been because he knows that he is doing his part in God’s plan! As a competitor Larry would like to win every time he plays a tournament, but he knows that in the end it’s not about that at all.
Larry is guided by his faith, and when he signs his autograph, he adds a Scripture verse “I just sign it hoping it’ll encourage somebody and they’ll look it up and it’ll help them in their life,” he said. “Maybe it’ll make them think spiritually and help them in some way.” Larry found out that winning for the Master is far more important than winning the Master’s. He knows that although he had a moment of perfection he is far from perfect. It is only by the grace of God that any of us are saved. When Larry shares his faith these days it isn’t cold head knowledge he shares, it comes straight from his heart!
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this is not from yourself-it is the gift of God
II Ephesians 8:19