LOS ANGELES — As became evident long ago, Tiger Woods is not one to forget. Slights, perceived or otherwise, come to mind. And so do losses, even ones that occurred long ago.
As Woods readies for competition this week at the Genesis Open, a defeat 20 years ago at this tournament is one such example. It wasn’t here at Riviera Country Club, but 30 minutes north at Valencia Country Club, where the long-time tournament was moved that year.
Woods’ sudden-death playoff loss to Billy Mayfair stands out for several reasons, not the least being it’s the only playoff loss in his PGA Tour career. That it came at a tournament — his hometown, childhood event — that he frustratingly never won makes for one of the odd negatives in a record-setting career.
Although Woods long ago came to terms with the defeat, he acknowledged the loss bugged him.
“It did,” he said. “Because I had the advantage on a par-5. We played the 18th in the playoff and if I hit the ball in the fairway, it’s an iron to the green for me. I missed the fairway. We both lay up. I wedge it outside of his ball and he makes to win. It was that simple. He had a putt straight up the hill.”
The year was 1998, and it remains Woods’ only playoff defeat on the PGA Tour, where he has an 11-1 record, including 3-0 in major championships. In worldwide events, Woods is 15-3 in playoffs, his only other losses coming to Padraig Harrington at the 2006 Dunlop Phoenix tournament in Japan, and to Zach Johnson at the 2013 World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club.
Woods was 22 and already an icon, the game’s most popular figure. But, of course, he had built nowhere near the record he would accumulate. At the time, he had six PGA Tour titles, including the 1997 Masters. He had won earlier that year in a playoff over Ernie Els at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand.
Mayfair, now 51 and playing on the Champions Tour, was a veteran pro who had three PGA Tour victories. He also won the 1987 U.S. Amateur and had played college golf at Arizona State. Because the tournament was not being played at Riviera — where Woods has played 10 times without a victory, the most of any venue in his career — Mayfair considered skipping it. The 1998 U.S. Senior Open was scheduled for Riviera in the summer, so organizers made a one-year move to Valencia. (The tournament, for years known as the Los Angeles Open, dates to 1929 and has been played at Riviera 56 times.)
“He was a couple of groups ahead of me,” Mayfair said. “I was in the last group with Tommy Armour and I knew I needed to make birdie on the last hole to tie him. All of the fans were pretty much ahead of us, two to three groups, so there weren’t many people following us.
“But for him they were hooping and hollering. He grew up in that area and the fans were as loud as they are today. They were loud and they cheered but all very good golf fans. Today it might be more boisterous but trust me there were a lot of people around.”
Mayfair was actually just one group behind Woods, who shot a 5-under-par 66 that included birdies on three of the last four holes. Mayfair shot 67 that included a birdie at the last to tie.
“If I go down as the only guy to beat Tiger Woods in a playoff, that’s a feather in my cap.”
A winner of the 1995 Tour Championship, Mayfair had struggled over the preceding year and was not qualified for the Masters until the victory. But he knocked a bunker shot on the par-5 closing hole to 4 feet, rolled in the putt to tie Woods, then beat him with another birdie on the same hole.
“He’s always had a champion’s respect for me for that,” Mayfair said. “He would tease me, say I’m the only guy who could beat him in a playoff. He always had a great attitude about it, and I think he really wanted to win that tournament. Of course, at that time he was trying to win everything he played in.”
Woods has a career’s worth of victories in playoffs alone. His first PGA Tour win at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational was in a playoff over Davis Love III. Three of his 14 major wins — the 2000 PGA over Bob May, the 2005 Masters over Chris DiMarco and the 2008 U.S. Open over Rocco Mediate — came in playoffs.
He has four victories in playoffs in World Golf Championship events and three in European Tour events that were not majors or WGCs.
“I just like it,” he said. “You have to suck it up and hit good shots. Nothing really iffy about it. You just have to do it.”
All of those playoff victories were in sudden death except two. The 2000 PGA was a three-hole aggregate playoff over May. The 2008 U.S. Open, his last major championship, was an 18-hole playoff with Mediate — but even that one ended up in sudden death after both were tied through 18 holes. Woods won on the first extra hole.
And Mayfair was watching.
“I won’t lie, I love Rocco,” Mediate said. “But I wanted to keep that record. I was cheering for Tiger. I was exempt on the big tour for 27 years, won the U.S. Amateur and a Tour Championship, made a lot of money. But most people will say you’re the only person to beat Tiger in a playoff.
“I love that as it shows a great deal of respect for me and for Tiger and for the game. If I go down as the only guy to beat Tiger Woods in a playoff, that’s a feather in my cap.”