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.