For senior golfer Billy Mayfair, autism diagnosis made everything make sense
In 2019 at a senior tour event in California, Billy Mayfair was disqualified after two separate rules violations in the same round. He was frustrated, naturally, but also a little confused. He felt like he wasn't following the questions he was being asked by rules officials, which doubled the frustration and confusion.
His wife, Tami, felt like the incident was a continuation of unusual, and in some ways, erratic behavior by Mayfair so she suggested he visit a doctor to see if there might be something more there.
"My wife Tami noticed things first, in particular my attitude, the way I would look at people, the way I was sometimes getting confused," said Mayfair, who is in Rancho Mirage this week for the inaugural Galleri Classic PGA Tour Champions event. "She felt that I needed to be tested, and I was fighting against it all the way. But I’m glad I did finally. ... And I wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis."
The diagnosis was that Mayfair has autism spectrum disorder or ASD. The news that he had, what they call high-functioning autism, actually came as a relief to Mayfair. It explained so much about his life, both the good and the bad.
"For me what's always been difficult is reading people's facial expressions or not understanding if someone was kidding when they were saying something to me," Mayfair said. "Now I realize why I had a hard time at school, and why it just took me a longer time to figure things out. Once I realized that, I felt better about myself. It explained like why would I get so upset at times, it’s just the way my brain worked and the way that I solve things."
Now that he's done the research and knows more about ASD, Mayfair is also sure that it helped him become a professional golfer. A hallmark of having ASD is often the ability to hyperfocus on certain activities. Mayfair has five PGA Tour wins and most famously is the only golfer to beat Tiger Woods in a playoff, besting Woods at the 1998 Nissan Open.
"I know it's helped my game, and it explains why sometimes I am that athlete that can really focus better than other people and other golfers did," Mayfair said. "Of course, I used to think that was normal, but I know now that this helped me in that way."
Since the diagnosis in 2019, Tami and Billy jumped into learning about ASD and Billy also started seeing a psychologist during COVID to help him understand even more about autism. He was diagnosed in 2019, but did not make it public until 2021. The reason he did that is he wants to help people.
It's a quest for both of them to bring awareness about ASD, not just for those who have it, but also what it's like for families and friends of people with autism and how to help them. He gets a thrill when kids or adults come up to him and share their stories about being autistic. It's one of the things that makes him the happiest on the course these days.
"There's a stigma to it like, 'Oh God, he’s got autism. He’s Rainman.' Most people are afraid to ask or talk about it," said Tami, a former golfer in her own right who also acts as Billy's caddie. "Part of our goal is to communicate to others that it's not a bad thing, it’s a different thing. It’s like two people talking in a different language."
Enjoying life on the senior tour
Mayfair, now 56, is loving life on the senior tour, though he still hasn't broken through for a victory on the PGA Tour Champions circuit.
"I've been out here for five years now and it's a blessing, it keeps me active and keeps me away from the honey-do list," he said with a laugh. "I think we've got a really great tour right now, with a lot of big names and it's fun to get back out there with a guy like John Daly I've known since I was 12 years old. We're still competitive out here don't get me wrong, but it's not as much of a grind as the big tour."
Mayfair is excited about being back in the desert, too. He said he played a junior tournament back in the day at Mission Hills and would come over to this course to play when he was in town for the Bob Hope (the desert's PGA event).
In the Bob Hope, now known as The American Express, Mayfair has some of his best golf memories including being paired with Arnold Palmer one year.
"It just seems like the Palm Springs area and the senior are two pegs that fit well together," said Mayfair, who last played in the desert's PGA event in 2012.
That win over Woods
Woods has a career playoff record on the PGA Tour of 11-1. Mayfair is that 1. It was a quick playoff. Mayfair birdied the first hole and Woods could not. It happened 25 years ago, but he said someone mentions it almost every day.
"Back then, it just felt like a win for me and any time you can win on the PGA Tour you're excited, but to beat Tiger was something special and not only was it a great win, it started a friendship with Tiger which has been nice," Mayfair said.
And he's hoping he gets another crack at Woods, who is now 47 years old.
"I hope he's able to come out in three or four years and play on this tour," Mayfair said, adding with a laugh. "I just hope nobody else ever beats him in a playoff. I want to keep that one to myself."
Shad Powers is a columnist for The Desert Sun. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Galleri Classic: For Billy Mayfair, autism diagnosis made everything make sense