August 06, 1979 12:00 PM

‘If it hadn’t been for Susie, I might have been in even more trouble’

I had a couple of lean years,” says golfer John Mahaffey, 31. “It takes a while to get everything back into shape.”

In 1971, when he joined the pro tour after twice making All-America at the University of Houston, Mahaffey was talked about as a future Nicklaus. During the next five years he never finished lower than 39th in annual earnings (out of more than 400 regular tour players), though he won only a single tournament. His prize money totaled more than $500,000.

In 1975 and 1976, however, his game began to desert him at the U.S. Open. The first year he lost a playoff; the second, he blew a big lead. His confidence got shaky. So did his marriage. Late in 1976 he hyperextended his elbow, stretching and inflaming the tendons. While recuperating, he fell off a ladder at home and broke his thumb.

Rumors of severe depression and heavy drinking followed. Mahaffey, a psychology major at Houston, denies them. “I didn’t let it get me down,” he insists. Indeed, by last August his troubles seemed over. He won the PGA Tournament in a playoff with good friend Jerry Pate and tour leader Tom Watson, then took three of the next nine major tournaments. He was given the 1978 Ben Hogan Award for Comeback of the Year.

Then misfortune struck again. At the Bing Crosby tournament last February, Mahaffey strained ligaments in his left hand when his driver snagged in a clump of grass. He has played only sporadically since then, but must return to the fairways this week to defend his PGA crown in Birmingham, Mich. “I’m still not playing as well as I’d like,” he admits.

The famous Ben Hogan gave Mahaffey his first break in pro golf. Born in Kerrville, Texas, population 19,760, John was a star high school athlete and was offered basketball scholarships, even though he’s only 5’9″. Instead, he played golf at Houston and won the NCAA individual championship in 1970. While working at a course outside the city, he met Hogan, who talked him into entering the Colonial Invitational in Fort Worth. Mahaffey tied for 11th, ahead of several pros. “I had a chance to win but couldn’t handle it,” he says, in a rueful joke on his own reputation as a poor pressure player. He joined the tour soon after.

If Hogan was his early inspiration, Mahaffey credits his second wife, Susie, 27, with helping him through the last two difficult years. “If it hadn’t been for her,” he says, “I might have been in even more trouble.” (He and his first wife, named Suzy, “just grew apart,” Mahaffey says; they divorced in 1977 after five years of marriage.)

John and his second wife met in 1976 when he was playing in Napa, Calif., near her hometown. She noticed his picture in the program (“I thought he was kind of cute”), followed him on the course and rode in his cart back to the clubhouse. They were married in 1977 and now, Mahaffey says, Susie “tells me where I’m playing, what hotel we’re staying at and what flight we’re on.” She adds: “All he has to do is eat and get dressed.”

When they’re home, Susie recruits a willing John to help with the housework. “I’m a good maid,” he concedes. Their Houston friends include several Oiler football players, including quarterback Dan Pastorini.

Mahaffey is known among the pros as a clubhouse comedian—his imitation of a clowning Chi Chi Rodriguez and a pompous Gary Player qualify him as the Rich Little of the tour. He manages to be more serious on the course, but can’t resist the observation: “I’m trying to win the Ben Hogan Comeback Award—every year.”

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