Hawk's Nest: Mahan balancing fame, fortune, family

By John HawkinsAugust 25, 2014, 1:40 pm

PARAMUS, N.J. – Hunter Mahan never totally lost his way, but after winning twice in six weeks and climbing to fourth in the Official World Golf Ranking during the spring of 2012, he managed not to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team that fall. Current skipper Tom Watson can only dream of such depth.

He spent much of 2013 making a lot of money, but not a lot of weekend noise – a pair of T-4s and a T-9 from the West Coast swing onward. Another winless regular season in 2014 left Mahan well removed from the Ryder Cup radar, but Sunday’s come-from-behind victory at The Barclays is about as positive a scenario as Watson and the Yanks could have hoped for.

Nobody’s going to come right out and say how weak this U.S. team is. Once the FedEx Cup playoffs started, the only way for it to get any better was if someone with Ryder Cup experience won a premium-field event, which just happened.

When I spoke at length with Mahan during the 2013 Travelers Championship, he looked and sounded like a guy who was burned out. The previous Sunday, he’d been paired with Mickelson in the final group at the U.S. Open and would finish four shots behind Justin Rose.

His wife was eight months pregnant with their first child, something he was very excited about, but it was fairly obvious the prospect of juggling fatherhood and a top-tier career was causing Mahan some anxiety. It was like a very laid-back dude woke up one morning and suddenly realized he wasn’t playing for fun anymore.

“I don’t think there were any focus issues,” Mahan’s longtime caddie, John Wood, said Sunday evening. “It was more of Hunter just figuring out a new way of life.”

As glamorous as the Tour life can be, more than a few players grow tired of the annual grind. When he was feeling old one afternoon, Fred Couples told me that once you’ve played TPC Las Colinas 60 or 70 times, the thrill of competition – and all the upsides of being one of the world’s best golfers – can become a bit harder to find.

Mahan is a thinker. Soft-spoken, but clearly introspective. His passion for playing in team events is something he has made clear to me on several occasions, and Watson would have to go out of his way not to pick him. I can’t imagine that happening.

HE BASICALLY HAD the practice green to himself about an hour before his tee time Saturday afternoon, just him and Fluff on another weekend in the mix. Many Tour pros would prefer not to be bothered at that point in their preparation for an important round. Their body language sends the message. After 20 years, you know how to read the vibe.

But Jim Furyk has also been around a long time. He knows it’s a big deal and all, but he’s fully aware that a few minutes of casual conversation with a familiar face isn’t going to lead to a higher score. After we exchanged pleasantries, I told him I’d be spending the afternoon on the course, kind of like a real fan, eschewing my inside-the-ropes access to take in the atmosphere of a New York-area sporting event.

Furyk seemed to know exactly what I was looking for. “You’ve gotta go to the fifth green,” he said without hesitation. “You’ll get plenty of stuff there.”

For all the fuss made about the intensity of fandom in the Big Apple, Saturday’s galleries at Ridgewood were as tame as the ones you’d expect in Topeka. Some of that had to do with timing. Friday afternoon golf crowds tend to be more boisterous, perhaps because of a surplus of adult beverages, while all the dials are turned up on Sunday, when a winner is crowned.

One thing about New Yorkers: they acknowledge excellence and are indifferent to mediocrity. At some Tour stops, they applaud if a player gets the ball airborne or after he taps in a six-inch putt for bogey. When Zach Johnson parked a wedge 12 feet below the pin at Ridgewood’s driveable, par-4 fifth, there was virtually no reaction.

When Matt Kuchar almost jarred his second shot from a similar distance less than a minute later, the crowd went nuts. And when Justin Rose, playing in the very next group, not only drove the green but came within eight inches of making a hole in-one, you’d have thought Derek Jeter homered in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Red Sox.

Pro golf doesn’t have civic allegiances. There is no home team to live and die for. Almost every player is warmly received, but the element of an emotional attachment doesn’t exist. Every fan has their favorites, of course, but only a handful of Tour pros inspire a tangible level of partisanship.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, obviously. John Daly for sure; Fred Couples to a certain extent; and despite persistent criticism of his bratty behavior, Bubba Watson has probably worked his way into the group. Bubba’s following at Ridgewood was twice the size of Rory McIlroy’s, evidence that dynamics are as important as deeds.

As I was preparing to leave Furyk to go about his business, he thought of another place on the grounds that captured the essence of New York. “Right over there,” he said, pointing to the area where patrons gather to collect autographs.

“Most places, it’s pretty orderly, the kids are polite. Here, the parents are almost pushing them at you. ‘Get in there, Johnny! Get him now!’ I think it’s fair to say we don’t get that everywhere.”

THE PGA TOUR lost one of its sharpest minds earlier this month when Joe Ogilvie announced his retirement from pro golf. Ogilvie, who turned 40 in April, is a Duke graduate with a degree in economics, which explains why he’s leaving the game to take a job in the financial industry.

He’s a good friend and an exceptionally valued source – Ogilvie is the only Tour pro whose wedding I attended. And while those with more successful playing careers have perfected the art of saying nothing, Ogilvie is incapable of not speaking his mind.

Those in my business who have gotten to know him over the years will attest to his vast knowledge of the Tour’s operating procedures (he’s a former policy board member) and willingness to question the empire in Ponte Vedra Beach. In a world where most of the smart guys forever toe the company line, Ogilvie was an iconoclast, an independent thinker with a bottomless well full of fresh ideas.

His lone victory came at the old Milwaukee Tour stop in 2007, but for a five-year stretch from 2004-08, Ogilvie surpassed $1 million in earnings every season. In recent years, he has received more attention as a possible successor to commissioner Tim Finchem than as a competitor, but Ogilvie never saw himself getting the job.

“I’m too critical of the operation,” he would tell me. As was almost always the case, the man had a point.

GOLF AND THE Olympics have always seemed like weird bedfellows, in my estimation. The “growth of the game” agenda has always served as a convenient reason for certain organizations to fatten their profit margins – the PGA Tour is supposed to be a sports league, not a moral compass.

Besides, international growth doesn’t seem like a realistic option in a game where exclusivity and cost remain two very obvious hurdles. Camp Ponte Vedra was the driving force behind golf’s debut in the 2016 Summer Games, ostensibly for its own long-term fiscal health – South America represents an untapped commodity in this decade just as China was in the last.

All that said, it was nice to hear Phil Mickelson reaffirm his desire to compete in the ’16 gathering last week at Ridgewood. “After the Ryder Cup, I’ll probably take the rest of the year off, work on my fitness and my golf game and really focus on 2015 because that’s when points start accumulating for the Olympics,” Lefty said.

“I don’t know why it’s important to me, but it is. I want to be a 46-year-old Olympian,” he added. “That’s pretty cool.” As regular readers of this column might know, a motivated Mickelson is a productive Mickelson. And a productive Mickelson is a huge asset to our game, regardless of which continent he’s playing in.

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One & Done: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 5:55 pm

Beginning in 2018, Golf Channel is offering a "One & Done" fantasy game alternative. Choose a golfer and add the salary they earn at the event to your season-long total - but know that once chosen, a player cannot be used again for the rest of the year.

Log on to www.playfantasygolf.com to start your own league and make picks for this week's event.

Here are some players to consider for One & Done picks this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where Hudson Swafford returns as the defending champion:

Zach Johnson. The two-time major champ has missed the cut here three years in a row. So why include him in One & Done consideration? Because the three years before that (2012-14) included three top-25s highlighted by a third-place finish, and his T-14 at the Sony Open last week was his fifth straight top-25 dating back to September.

Bud Cauley. Cauley has yet to win on Tour, but that could very well change this year - even this week. Cauley ended up only two shots behind Swafford last year and tied for 14th the year prior, as four of his five career appearances have netted at least a top-40 finish. He opened the new season with a T-7 in Napa and closed out the fall with a T-8 at Sea Island.

Adam Hadwin. Swafford left last year with the trophy, but it looked for much of the weekend like it would be Hadwin's tournament as he finished second despite shooting a 59 in the third round. Hadwin was also T-6 at this event in 2016 and now with a win under his belt last March he returns with some unfinished business.

Charles Howell III. If you didn't use him last week at the Sony Open, this could be another good spot for the veteran who has four top-15 finishes over the last seven years at this event, highlighted by a playoff loss in 2013. His T-32 finish last week in Honolulu, while not spectacular, did include four sub-70 scores.

David Lingmerth. Lingmerth was in that 2013 playoff with Howell (eventually won by Brian Gay), and he also lost here in overtimei to Jason Dufner in 2016. The Swede also cracked the top 25 here in 2015 and is making his first start since his wife, Megan, gave birth to the couple's first child in December. Beware the sleep-deprived golfer.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.