PARAMUS, N.J. – While her father was busy attempting to navigate the 18th hole at Ridgewood Country Club on Sunday afternoon, little Zoe Olivia Mahan was blissfully oblivious to the buzz in the air.
Playing the role of adorable toddler to perfection, she wore a purple dress over flower-patterned pants, white sneakers with the Velcro straps pulled tight and pink-framed glasses, all topped with a green bow in curly hair.
Just 50 yards from the final green, separated by a wall of bleachers filled with applauding fans and fronted by tournament officials with blue blazers and flawlessly coiffed hair, Zoe held the hand of her mother, Kandi, while navigating a wobbly path of her own. She heartily clapped along with the bleacher creatures, but when they lustily offered their loudest cheer of the day, her mother scooped her up and made a beeline through the tunnel toward the source of their emotion.
Hunter Mahan culminated his final round at The Barclays with an unsteady bogey, holing an 8-foot putt to finish off a 6-under 65. No matter, though. Still two shots clear of his next closest competitor, he visibly huffed a sigh of relief.
That instinctive reaction could have meant so many things. Relief from the final-hole bogey that began when he belted his tee shot too far to the right. Relief from a week spent yo-yoing atop the leaderboard, jockeying with so many other players for the title. Or relief from clinching his first victory in more than two full years.
Not that he hasn’t had his chances.
It was just over a year ago when Mahan led the Canadian Open entering the third round. He was warming up on the driving range when his manager received a phone call. Kandi was going into labor in Dallas – and for the geographically challenged, it should be noted that Dallas isn’t very close to Canada.
He didn’t flinch. Quickly withdrawing from the tournament, he hopped on a plane and headed due south, arriving in time to see the birth of Zoe later that afternoon.
Within a few days, the happy family was interviewed on multiple national television shows, telling their story while graphics such as “MILLION-DOLLAR BABY” flashed across the screen.
This week, it was Kandi and Zoe who were watching on television, as Hunter contended for three days without them. Visiting family in Odessa, Texas, his wife decided on Saturday night that – win or lose – she wanted them to be there for him when he finished his final round the next day.
“It’s just great to be together no matter what,” she said. “If he did win, we definitely wanted to be here. So we decided we were going to go, me and Zoe.”
They left Odessa at 10:30 a.m. and arrived in New Jersey at 4:15 p.m., as Hunter was playing the 15th hole. Navigating traffic even better than he’d navigated Ridgewood, they arrived shortly thereafter, with him still playing the 16th hole.
Mother and daughter hid in the clubhouse for a little while, then roamed toward that spot adjacent to the 18th hole while Mahan was in the midst of trying to win.
After he did, after it was all but final and the crowd cheered in his honor, after he huffed that sigh of relief, he turned and unexpectedly saw Kandi hustling toward him, enthusiastic smile on her face, Zoe in her arms.
“I was almost in shock, I think,” he later explained. “All of a sudden, there's my wife and daughter and I'm like, ‘Wait a minute, should they be on the green or not? What do we do?’ There was a lot going on in my head and it was hard to keep everything kind of straight. They didn't come in all week and I wasn't planning to see them until tomorrow. Obviously to see them right now and to win is a special feeling.”
His win will be tinged by narratives surrounding the Ryder Cup (he’s aiming to earn one of three captain’s picks that will be unveiled in just over a week) and the FedEx Cup (he jumped from 62ndon the points list to first, ensuring that he will play all four playoff events for an eighth consecutive season).
Those details aren’t insignificant, but the story of Mahan’s sixth career PGA Tour victory is that it’s his first as a father – and his first since giving up a potential title to see the birth of his daughter.
“I was playing great that week as well, but you never know what could have happened,” he said. “It feels good to get a W. It's been a couple years, and it feels good the way I did it.”
Kandi knows this one was different.
“I think it’s so special for him,” she beamed. “He has always said it’s a dream of his to win a tournament and have his baby girl there.”
Not long after the victory was clinched, Kandi handed Zoe over to her proud father. “Hi, baby girl!” he cooed, lifting her into the air, punctuated by a kiss. The little girl smiled and clapped, just like everyone else who had just watched her dad win the tournament.