‘A rich golf history.’ Three Columbus residents will play in this year’s Masters

Final, first and somewhere in the middle. That summarizes the significance of this year’s Masters for three golfers residing in Columbus.

This will be Larry Mize’s 40th consecutive and last competitive appearance at the Masters, the major tournament in his native Augusta he won in 1987 with one of the most famous shots in golf history.

Ben Carr, a former Columbus High School standout and a fifth-year senior at Georgia Southern University, qualified for his first Masters and U.S. Open by finishing second in last year’s U.S. Amateur.

And then there’s Russell Henley, who will play in the Masters for the seventh time. Henley, a Macon native, won the 2010 Haskins Award, given to that year’s most outstanding collegiate golfer, while playing for the University of Georgia. The award is named in memory of Fred Haskins, who taught golf at the Country Club of Columbus.

This year’s edition of the Masters is projected to have 89 competitors. The Ledger-Enquirer tried to determine how unusual it is for at least three golfers from the same city to play in the Masters at the same time.

Augusta National Golf Club spokesman Pat Kravitz wrote in an email to the L-E, “While I can’t confirm how many other years this has happened, there are a few cities (Jupiter, Scottsdale, Dallas) that tend to have groups of players represented. We have 10 from Jupiter alone this year! And 6 in Dallas. Certainly, it’s a neat fact for Columbus, GA regardless.”

Indeed. Just ask these two head golf professionals in Columbus: Ryan Williams of the Country Club of Columbus, where Carr, Henley and Mize are members, and Matt Heitmueller of Green Island Country Club, where Henley and Mize are members.

‘Absolute gentlemen’

“It just shows the rich golf history in Columbus,” Heitmueller told the L-E. “… It’s often overlooked by several cities.”

Williams told the L-E the situation is “truly remarkable. The golf history of Columbus is already overly impressive, but having three current residents, one being born and raised here (Carr), competing for the most prestigious prize in golf, is a special page in the history books.”

Making it extra special is the convergence of Mize’s final Masters as a competitor with Carr’s first.

“The timeliness of all this happening in the same year is incredible,” Heitmeuller said. “It just seems like the stars aligned. And they are stars.”

They also are “absolute gentlemen”, Heitmueller said. “I mean, they’re just three of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. They’re also humble. … Columbus is certainly extremely proud to put our name on those guys.”

The trio are scheduled to play together in the par-3 contest April 5, the day before the Masters tournament starts.

“Just a great moment,” Heitmueller said. “… The cool thing is, with those three guys, they’re all great friends.”

While he was home for Christmas break, Carr joined Mize and Henley for a roundtable discussion at the Country Club of Columbus, where more than 150 members heard “stories from these three world-class players,” Williams said.

“This is a very golf savvy group of people,” Williams said, “and I cannot wait to hear the roars from the clubhouse patio during every Georgia golfer’s favorite week of the year.”

Larry Mize

Larry Mize of Columbus jumps in the air after making the winning shot in a sudden death playoff to win the Masters Golf title in April 12, 1987 in Augusta.
Larry Mize of Columbus jumps in the air after making the winning shot in a sudden death playoff to win the Masters Golf title in April 12, 1987 in Augusta.

Mize told the Augusta Chronicle in January that this will be the final time for him to compete in the Masters.

“It’s going to be an emotional week, but it’s time,” Mize, 64, told the Chronicle. “I know it’s time.”

Mize, who played for Georgia Tech, has competed in 616 PGA Tour events since he turned pro in 1980, with four wins, 11 runner-ups and 86 top 10s while making 414 cuts and earning $7.9 million.

His 1987 Masters victory came in a playoff against Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman at the tournament where he worked as a teen on the third hole’s leaderboard. But it was the 11th hole where Mize made his improbable, memorable, magical Masters moment.

Mize came into the tournament with only one win in seven years on the PGA Tour. This was his fourth Masters. He had finished tied for 11th, tied for 47th and tied for 16th in his first three.

Meanwhile, his two opponents in the playoffs were a two-time Masters champion (Ballesteros) and the world’s top-ranked player (Norman).

But he wasn’t intimidated, Mize told John Feinstein in a 2017 story for Golf Digest, because he recalled competing well against Norman in the 1986 Kemper Open, which Norman won in a six-hole playoff.

“I’d hung in there with Greg the year before, and I just told myself I wouldn’t be standing here if I hadn’t played well enough to deserve it,” Mize told Feinstein. “That helped a lot.”

Ballesteros three-putted the 10th hole for a bogey on the first playoff hole, leaving Mize and Norman in a duel after their pars.

Despite missing a 12-foot birdie putt that would have clinched the victory on the 10th, Mize wasn’t despondent as he walked to the 11th tee.

“I supposed I could have been thinking, Oh God, I just missed a putt to win the Masters,” he told Feinstein. “Instead, I thought, OK, now I’ve only got to deal with one of them, because Seve was out.”

Their tee shots were safely on the fairway at the par-4 11th. Norman’s second shot put him on the right fringe, 40 feet from the hole. Mize’s second shot was mighty wayward, much farther to the right, 140 feet away.

Here’s how Sarah Ballard, in the April 20, 1987, issue of Sports Illustrated, described Mize’s immortal chip shot for a preposterous birdie:

“… bounced twice up a grassy bank and once on the putting surface before it rolled halfway across the 11th green directly into the hole.”

In a 2013 retrospective of “Masters shots to remember,” USA Today quoted Mize recalling, “I wanted to bump it a yard or 2 short of the green and I had to put it in low. I was just trying to put it to the right of the pin. I didn’t mean to hit it where I did.

“It looked good all the way. It went right in there, and I went right up there.”

Mize’s reaction also is iconic. He leaped with such exuberance, his visor flew off as he tossed his club and hopped in a circle around his caddie as he clapped his hands and shook his fists above his head.

Norman missed his birdie putt, sealing the victory for Mize.

Ben Carr

Carr, 22, has been waiting seven months after qualifying for his first Masters.

“Real excited,” he said at the media availability Georgia Southern Athletics posted March 22 on its YouTube channel. “It’s always felt like it’s super far away, and now it’s really close. Just trying to get my game ready and my body ready. Been playing a lot of golf over the last month or two. I think it’s going to be really important for me over the next two weeks to get my work in for sure but not overdo it.”

Carr is off to an excellent start in his final collegiate season. He won the Schenkel Invitational, placed second in the Colleton River Collegiate and tied for second in the Valspar Collegiate Invitational, part of six top-15 finishes in seven tournaments.

In his PGA Tour debut, March 2-5 at the Puerto Rico Open, he missed the cut after shooting 1-over-par 145 (71-74) in the first two rounds.

Last season, Carr finished ranked second in Sun Belt Conference scoring average (70.81) and 82nd nationally. He notched top-eight finishes in nine of 12 events, including a victory in the Bank of Tennessee Collegiate. He was selected as a PING All-Region and a PING All-America Honorable Mention.

During his Columbus High career, Carr was a four-year state champion and all-state first-team selection. As a senior, he won six of nine tournaments and set a school record with a 69.78 scoring average.

Ben Carr, posing in this 2017 photo, was a four-year state champion and all-state first-team selection during his career at Columbus High School. As a senior, he won six of nine tournaments and set a school record with a 69.78 scoring average.
Ben Carr, posing in this 2017 photo, was a four-year state champion and all-state first-team selection during his career at Columbus High School. As a senior, he won six of nine tournaments and set a school record with a 69.78 scoring average.

Carr has relied on Mize and Henley for advice about playing in the Masters.

“I got to spend a bunch of time with them over the Christmas break and just kind of pick their brains a little bit,” he said. “… Between the two of them, they have all the experience in the world. Just being able to lean on them and learn as much as I can from them was really important for me.”

Carr called his first practice round at August National in mid-February “pretty surreal.”

“My brother got to play with me,” he said. “When we pulled in Magnolia Lane, my truck was in front of his car. Just looked in the rearview mirror to see his facial expressions, and he was just wide-eyed.”

They stayed overnight and spent about 36 hours at the club.

“Awesome experience,” he said. “I was pretty nervous the first time I got there. I didn’t really know what to do. Felt like I was walking on eggshells. But I’m starting to get a little more comfortable out there.”

Now that Carr has played three practice rounds at Augusta National, his biggest takeaway is understanding the spots on the course for his ball to avoid.

“Just learning where to miss it,” he said. “That’s a common theme between guys who had success there. … It’s not necessarily about being perfect, just about not making big mistakes.”

Watching the Masters on TV doesn’t show how hilly the course is compared to others.

“In the fairways, on the greens — really everywhere — there’s just so much elevation change,” he said. “… It’s pretty intimidating if you’re not super comfortable with it. So that’s something I’m trying to get better with.”

Carr will play in front of the largest crowds that ever watched him on a golf course, but he expects “all my friends and family, a lot of people that have helped me get to where I am,” to be in attendance and ease the pressure.

“They give us a lot of tickets,” he said, “so I spread them out the best way I knew how. I’ll have a lot of support there, for sure.”

Russell Henley

Henley, 33, has four career wins, three runner-up finishes, four third places and 37 top-10s in 257 tournaments while earning $22.9 million during 10 years on the PGA Tour. He is ranked 26th in the FedExCup standings and 37th in the Official World Golf Rankings.

His most recent victory came in November at the World Wide Technology Championship in Mexico. Since then, he has missed three cuts in eight tournaments. His highest finish during that span is tied for 17th, at the Dell Technologies Match Play, March 22-26, in Austin, Texas.

Henley has finished in the top 35 at his past five Masters. His best Masters finish is tied for 11th in 2017. He has made five of six cuts at the Masters, with a scoring average of 72.45 in 22 rounds, ranging from a low of 67 to a high of 81.

Russell Henley hits from a bunker on the second hole during the third round at the Masters golf tournament April 8, 2018.
Russell Henley hits from a bunker on the second hole during the third round at the Masters golf tournament April 8, 2018.

If the PGA Tour gave an award for refreshing self-reflection, Henley would be a prime contender.

After that November victory at Mayakoba, Henley was asked about being one-for-six in converting his previous 54-hole leads on the PGA Tour, including failing to hang on to first place at the 2021 U.S. Open.

Golf.com quoted him as saying, “I’ve just choked, you know? The nerves have gotten to me, and I’ve made bad mistakes, bad mental mistakes and just haven’t gotten it done on Sunday.”

Then he was asked whether he thought the win could be a “monkey-off-your-back” breakthrough for his career.

“I do,” Henley said in that article. “To come out and kind of do everything pretty well today tee to green and keep it pretty clean and just play steady was what was nice. I don’t think I would have done it unless I had kind of failed so many times.”

Such a mentality could help him persevere at Augusta National. His last Masters round started with a 5-under-par 31 on the front nine but ended with a 39 on the back nine to finish the tournament in a tie for 30th place at 5-over 293.

Henley’s reaction? More glass-half-full optimism:

“I was really close on the back,” Henley said, as reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Lipped out my putt on 10, had a funky one coming back. Never had that putt before. Disappointing. On 13, I was about a yard from being tap-in for eagle. Instead, I’m on top and I can’t get it close. Just kind of some momentum killers there, but I feel really good about my game.”