Wednesday, April 18

A Magnificent Seven, Part 6: John Mahaffey at the 1971 Q-School and His Life in Golf

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John Mahaffey at the 1981 Masters.

This is the sixth in a series on players from the 1971 Q-School. Read Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5. Nearly a half century later John Coyne tracked down Allen Miller, Lanny Wadkins, Leonard Thompson, Sam Adams, John Mahaffey, Steve Melnyk and Spike Kelley. How had pro golf and life turned out for these seven men?

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.

THE ONE YOUNG PRO TO ARRIVE at the 1971 Q-School with an aura engulfing him was John Mahaffey, Jr. He was like the new good-looking kid in high school that had the girls in a titter. It wasn't his looks, nor his golf swing, but the whispered secret shared by the other players that Mahaffey was "Hogan's Prodigy."

Mahaffey, who had qualified at Quincy, Illinois, was 23 and had played at the University of Houston. He had been an All American in 1969 and 1970, the year he won the NCAA championship. After college, he went to work for Jimmy Demaret at the Champions Golf Club in Houston. 

It was at Champions that he met Hogan and played several rounds with him, Jackie Burke and Demaret. It was then that Hogan, after dinner one night at Champions, invited him to play in the 1970 Colonial tournament, where Mahaffey finished 11th. What most of all impressed Hogan -- besides his game -- was Mahaffey's quiet and polite manner on the golf course and in the clubhouse. 

Ben Hogan's attention to John Mahaffey followed him to Florida and to Q-School.

As John told me, "Hogan had asked Gardner Dickinson to look out for me and see that I didn’t do anything stupid. After the first round, Gardner called me at night in my hotel room. That day on the ninth hole I had driven into a fairway bunker and my next shot was over water. Well, I'm a kid. I'm thinking I can hit the ball over water. And I did. I got my par. Gardner told me that Hogan had suggested I don't have to make a crazy mistake. I didn't need to be low qualifier. I just had to qualify. Gardner told me not to do anything dumb."

And Mahaffey didn’t. He finished sixth with rounds of 73, 71, 73, 72, 73, 74. 

John returned to Texas where he signed a contract with the Ben Hogan Company and started the PGA Tour in January due to a family emergency for Lanny Wadkins that allowed John, as an alternate, to play in the tournament. That was their first connection and developed into a lifelong friendship. Today, both are broadcasters on the PGA Tour Champions; Lanny in the booth and John on the golf course. 

Another good friend from the Q-School and the early days of the PGA Tour was Tom Watson. They traveled together caravan style from one event to the next. What the young pros of the Q-School liked about Mahaffey, besides being a good guy and golfer, were his imitations of other players. Many thought his comic imitation of Chi Chi Rodriguez's swing was even better than the real thing.

"We were all lucky," John said. "The old pros took us under their wing. They taught us what to do, how to behave in public."

And back in Texas, Mahaffey had Hogan.

"I didn't have a pro teaching me how to play golf," John recalled. "I learned the swing from reading and studying Ben Hogan's Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf."

According to Curt Sampson, who wrote a biography of Hogan, "Five Lessons became the Gray's Anatomy of golf.  Hogan himself said, "I admit I wasn't prepared to see the members of the club on the practice tee, holding up the book."

John Mahaffey was one such student. He taught himself how to play from studying the medical illustration-style drawings done by Tony Ravielli, all based on Hogan's instructions. He also learned from playing golf with Byron Nelson and Lee Trevino.

"These guys worked the ball a ton. They moved it all over the golf course: left to right, right to left, high, low…and that's how I learned how to play golf as well."

Hogan, too, was impressed that John had learned the golf swing from his book.

"Hogan liked my work ethic as I wasn't afraid to practice until dark, and sometimes after.

"At one point, early in my career, Hogan called me into his office and asked me what my favorite courses were on the tour and I listed them. He told me that I had all the shots to play any course. What I needed was a go-to shot, especially for the back nine, and course management. No one was better than Hogan with course management. He told me he had watched me practice and play and that I had all the shots and not to be afraid to take on any course. Once I did I became a lot better player."

Mahaffey's first PGA Tour victory was at the 1973 Sahara Invitational, and then in 1975 he tied Lou Graham at the end of regulation in the U.S. Open, only to lose in the 18-hole playoff.

Mahaffey finished 10th in 1973 at the British Open, and didn't win again on tour until 1978. At the 1978 PGA Championship, Mahaffey won the playoff beating Jerry Pate and Tom Watson. And the following week he won the American Optical Classic. His final tour victory was in 1989, winning The Players Championship. He finished his PGA Tour career with 10 wins and 20 times being the runner-up.

Mahaffey moved on to the Champions Tour, winning once, and later began his current career as a commentator with the Golf Channel.


John Coyne is a bestselling author whose most recent golf novel is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.

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