A Brand New Mahan

By Rex HoggardJuly 15, 2009, 4:00 pm
135th Open Championship TURNBERRY, Scotland ' There are times in golf when it seems the world is against you and, if truth be told, it normally is.
 
Golf is a game of 'no' for the vast majority of players, just ask Sergio Garcia. Twice in the last eight majors the Spaniard has become the punch line to a cruel cosmic joke, So Sergio turns to Padraig and says . . .
 
Garcias row with fate came to a head in 2007 at Carnoustie when he lost a playoff to Padraig Harrington: I'm playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field, Garcia fumed at the time, a not-so-subtle jab at the golf gods.
Hunter Mahan
Hunter Mahan uses positive thinking to help him focus on his game. (Getty Images)
Hunter Mahan knows the feeling.
 
At last months U.S. Open he was 2-under par through 69 holes and just a shot out of the lead when he flushed an 8-iron from 172 yards into the par-4 16th. What would have been a perfect shot and a birdie opportunity hit the bottom of the flag stick, bounded off the green and an untimely bogey essentially ended Mahans chances at his first major championship.
 
Mahan could have sulked and demanded an answer from the evil forces arrayed against him ' why? He could have pulled a Garcia and given the golf gods an earful. But the quiet young man from California doesnt do that. At least not anymore.
 
Instead he focused on what he did well at Bethpage, and TPC River Highlands (where he finished tied for fourth) and Congressional (where he finished runner-up to host Tiger Woods). And why he tees off on Thursday at Turnberry arguably the most likely American not named Woods to bring the Claret Jug back to the United States. You just focus on what you did right, Mahan said following his practice round Wednesday. You can only do so much. If you focus on the negative youre going to blow up and youre not going to win a major.
 
Mahan was not always the picture of Zen, however. The calm kid who stood in the sun laughing about his Bethpage misfortune on Wednesday looks nothing like the hothead who nearly lost a sports psychologist and a friend 18 holes into a 36-hole qualifier a few years back.
 
The turning point came at a U.S. Open qualifier in 2006 in Dallas. Neal Smith, Mahans sports psychologist, was caddying for him and was so disgusted with his mans attitude he used the lunch break as an impromptu intervention.
 
It wasnt a pep talk, Mahan laughed. It was an ass-chewing. I was beating myself up out there. It was like a pity party and he just let me know it.
 
Its not often a singular event changes the course of an entire career, but Mahans play post-pity party is impossible to ignore. He won his first event about a year later and impressed Jack Nicklaus so much the legend not only made him a captains pick but he sent the rookie out in the events first match.
 
In his last two years Mahan has 25 top-25 finishes in just 54 starts and was a star of Septembers Ryder Cup. Scared straight psychological style has never worked so well. I took so much confidence from the Ryder Cup, Mahan said. There was so much pressure and you feel it at every hole.
 
But if Mahans improved attitude makes him a player to watch at Turnberry, his Ben Hogan-like ballstriking should have the R&As engraver practicing his Hs and Ms. Few on the PGA Tour are more consistent tee-to-green, and his putting ' although streaky at times ' will benefit from Open greens that are traditionally slower than those at other major championship venues.
 
Hes also pieced together an impressive Open resume in just four starts. Although he missed the cut last year at Royal Birkdale, he finished tied for sixth at Carnoustie in 07, tied for 26th in 06 and tied for 36th in 04.
 
His confidence in his ballstriking was evident in his game plan for this week, an aggressive dramatic break from the collective norm. Depending on the wind, most players will limit how many times they hit driver, opting instead to avoid the thick heather for fairway and longer approaches. Not Mahan.
 
Ill hit 10, 11 drivers (a day), he said. The course just fits my eye.
 
And the Ailsas narrow fairways fit a game that ranks eighth in total driving (a statistical combination of distance and accuracy) and sixth in ballstriking. The new attitude is just a bonus, particularly on a links course that takes much more than it often gives. That half-full outlook has already been tested this week. Mahan missed two flights to Scotland and, predictably, the airline misplaced his golf clubs. No worries, Mahan had Ping build a new set and his wayward luggage finally found its way to Turnberry late Tuesday.
 
It was no big deal, Mahan calmly smiled.
 
Take that golf gods.
 
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