PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Already looking comfortable and confident, Hunter Mahan is asked about his strategy. After all, everyone has a different way of approaching things in an attempt to keep a clean sheet. He thinks about it for a few seconds, then reveals what’s been working for him.
“You can't be afraid,” he says. “You've got to be aggressive.'
Is this his blueprint for playing Oak Hill Country Club this week?
Nope. It’s his theory on diaper changing.
Over the past few months, the sporting landscape has been littered with tales of suspensions from performance enhancing drugs. Rumors of college athletes receiving illicit payments. Even allegations of homicides. The back page has become a police blotter.
“I think people were just ready for a great story in sports,” suggests Mahan.
He’s right, of course.
While Mahan didn’t wipe the sports ledger clear of those unsavory narratives, for at least one day he offered hope to all fans who had lost it. For one day, he showed us there is more to athletes than money, power and greed.
You know the story by now: Leading the RBC Canadian Open entering the third round, he was on the practice range when he got a call that his wife, Kandi, had prematurely gone into labor back in Dallas. He didn’t hesitate. Mahan promptly withdrew from the tournament and flew home, easily arriving in time to see the birth of the couple’s first daughter, Zoe Olivia.
In a sport where withdrawals barely make a blip in the daily agate, Mahan’s decision raised eyebrows and drew applause. He was universally lauded for choosing family over career, garnering so much attention for it that he, wife and baby even made appearances on “Good Morning America” and “SportsCenter.”
“The feedback's been incredible,” he says. “Obviously the attention that's surrounded it has been unbelievable, as well, very unexpected. But the feedback's been 100 percent great. I think everyone can kind of relate.
“I haven't met anyone who has said I made the wrong decision. I went on Twitter just a little bit kind of after everything to see what the response would be, because usually [on] Twitter they tell me how much I suck all the time and how dumb I am, so I figured somebody would say, ‘You're an idiot; you didn't know what you're doing; you can't throw away.’ But I didn't see that. Maybe I didn't look far enough down.”
This week, he’ll play his first competitive tournament as a father after skipping last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He isn’t just an honorary hopeful here at the PGA Championship, either. Mahan has played in the final pairing in each of the last two majors, though a pair of sullen Sunday afternoons left him in a share of fourth place at the U.S. Open and ninth at the Open Championship.
Even so, he views the experiences as more positive than negative.
“It's been very encouraging to be in the final group in a major,” he believes. “You're in the last group out there, and you get to see what everybody else does. You can see why Tiger and why those guys want to be in the last group. I feel like it's somewhat calming in a way, or at least that's what I felt, because you know kind of what everyone is doing and you get a sense of everything.”
If there’s a major championship venue built for Mahan’s game, it just might be this one. Oak Hill will require players to bash long, straight drives, which suits him just fine. With an average distance of 291.1 yards and an accuracy percentage of 66.34, he ranks ninth on the PGA Tour in the total driving category.
“I think I can use my driver as an advantage to get up there further, to put the ball in play,” he explains. “The greens are small. If I can give myself wedges and 9-irons where other guys are hitting 7s and 8s, that’s an advantage for me.”
There’s no doubt Mahan gained more fans with his now-famous decision of two weeks ago. Fathers who understand that being a parent takes priority. Mothers who know how important that support can be. Children who don’t take such sacrifices for granted.
Anyone, really, who in the dark cloud of the sporting landscape witnessed a sliver of silver lining in the feel-good story that Mahan produced.
They’ll be rooting for that story to continue this week at the PGA, rooting for Mahan to finally overcome his final-round struggles in a major and bring home the Wanamaker Trophy to Kandi and Zoe Olivia.
“He kissed Zoe a hundred times before he left,” Kandi says. “Of course we miss him so much, but I send pictures and videos all day and we will be cheering him on come Thursday.”
Not that Mahan did any of this for the fanfare or the adulation or the attention.
He did it for his family. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
“I wouldn't change it for the world,” he says. “It was a great experience.”