After cancer scare, teary-eyed Mayfair returns at PGA

Updated: August 19, 2006, 8:37 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

MEDINAH, Ill. -- If you want proof that golf is a mental game, look no further than Billy Mayfair.

No, scratch that. If you want proof that life is a mental game, look no further than Billy Mayfair.

"My biggest thought of the day was I was just so happy to be on the first tee," Mayfair said after his first-round 69 at the 88th PGA Championship. "The sun was out, and it was just a beautiful sight, and I know where I was two weeks ago. I can't explain how great it was just to be here."

Billy Mayfair
Rob Carr /AP PhotoMayfair birdied six of his first 11 holes, but admitted he got tired down the stretch.

Two weeks to the day after Mayfair underwent surgery to remove his cancerous right testicle, he birdied six of his first 11 holes on the No. 3 course at Medinah Country Club. He hadn't played competitive golf in four weeks, but he came back to the game a new man.

"I had a few tears in my eyes out there today when I got it going," he said.

Mayfair spent the front nine looking like Bill Murray at the end of "Groundhog Day." He spent the back nine looking like Bill Murray at a Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. But when the round ended, Mayfair stood only three strokes shy of leader Lucas Glover and was tied with, among others, the Magic Threesome of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Geoff Ogilvy.

More important, you couldn't have removed the smile from Mayfair's face with a blowtorch.

"All the angels," said his girlfriend, Tami Proctor, "are working overtime."

The world is in search of a shortcut to endorphins. Some people recommend working out. Others recommend chocolate. Those are temporary fixes at best. For a real endorphin rush, try staring down cancer. Try coming face-to-face with the real-life Lord Voldemort and living to tell about it.

Life is all in how you look at it. Some people stress about turning 40. Mayfair turned 40 on Aug. 6, three days after his surgery.

"I had a great week planned," Mayfair said Tuesday, "and unfortunately it was cut short. That's just the little surprises life can throw at you."

Instead of playing in the Buick Open at Flint, Mich., Mayfair flew home to Scottsdale, Ariz., and underwent surgery. Mayfair got the go-ahead from his urologist to compete just a week ago. He couldn't wait to walk inside the ropes. He is, utterly and without irony, just happy to be here.

"It just means the world to me," Mayfair said after his round. "That would get anyone pumped up."

He spent his entire round soaking in love from the gallery at Medinah and radiating it right back. As he walked from the 12th green to the 13th tee, several fans called after him.

"Good job, Billy!"

"Keep it going, Billy!"

He waved and smiled, sometimes without looking up and without breaking stride. As he approached the tee box, a man at the rope line said, "God bless your recovery, Billy." Mayfair looked up, looked the man in the eye, and said, "Thank you."

Not only has it been a month since he played competitive golf but two weeks since he even worked out. By the time Mayfair stood over his tee ball at the 248-yard par-3 13th, his fuel needle already pointed at E. He missed four of the next five greens, and bogeyed three of those holes.

Take the 605-yard, par-5 14th. Mayfair pushed his tee ball into the thick left rough. By the time he got out of it, he lay three, 227 yards from the green. After he missed a 10-foot par putt, Mayfair walked off the green to where his golf bag lay on its side. When he bent over to put his putter away, he braced his right hand on his right knee. By that point, Mayfair's natural loping gait had begun to look more like a limp.

"Yeah, I got a little tired coming down the stretch," Mayfair said. "I hit a little bit short on 16. Maybe that was being tired, too."

Mayfair's second shot to the uphill green at the 453-yard dogleg left 16th came within six feet of being a great shot. It landed just that short of the apron of the green, peeked at the putting surface and rolled down the incline. His 10-foot par putt lipped out.

He righted himself at the 17th, making a great up-and-down for par, and played the last hole out of an instruction book: down the middle, on the green, two putts.

Mayfair took only a handful of questions after the round before his agents mother-henned him into the locker room. Before he left, someone asked him whether he had a new outlook on life.

"At least for a few weeks," he said with a smile, "until I make my next double-bogey."

It's a safe bet that Mayfair's outlook will last longer than that. There is a lesson here, a lesson about stopping to look around, about stepping to the first tee and appreciating the sun being out. Mayfair needed a reprieve from the cancer warden to learn it. He is more than willing to allow the rest of us to audit his course.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Ivan.Maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com