Mahan a part of the 'American young talent' conversation?
- By John Hawkins
- Feb 26, 2012 10:01 PM ET
So the guy wrongly accused of killing the U.S. rally at the 2010 Ryder Cup is the new WGC-Accenture Match Play champion, beating a Northern Irishman in the finals, no less, making it a week when justice did more than just prevail. It high-stepped its way to the goal line and broke into an end-zone dance.
Hunter Mahan beat three of the top 14 players in the World Ranking en route to his second WGC title, all three of whom he vanquished after the field was reduced to 16. The last of those victories came against Rory McIlroy, who didn't face anyone in the top 30 until drawing Lee Westwood in the semis. Mahan won 31 holes and lost just 12 after surviving Zach Johnson in his opening match. Most impressively, he never trailed an opponent after winning the fourth hole of his second-round bout against Y.E. Yang.
By any measure, it was an exceptional performance by a guy who has drifted in and out of those "America's best young golfer" conversations that have proven so popular in recent years. Mahan turns 30 in May, and if the common perception is that a shoddy short game has prevented him from becoming one of the game's best players, the statistics do little to support or debunk such a claim.
In 2011, for instance, Mahan had by far his best all-around season, ranking in the top 25 in putting, birdies, greens in regulation and scoring average. He was a respectable 66th in sand saves and 58th in salvaging par from inside 30 yards. He also didn't win a tournament, and for all the FedEx Cup points and millions of dollars he accumulated, success is measured in Ws, not dollars or overnight-shipping digits.
"Ballstriking is a strength of mine, but I have to chip and putt if I want to win," Mahan said after deposing of McIlroy. It is especially crucial at the majors, where Mahan has underachieved to the point that he is still searching for his first top-five finish. His performance this past weekend will lure some into thinking he’s ready to become a superstar – I strongly suggest we downplay such chatter, if not ignore it entirely.
Mahan is a very good player, strikingly similar to Westwood, if you’ll pardon the pun, in that he excels from tee to green. The ability to economize strokes when you’re not hitting it precisely, however, is a difficult skill to acquire and even harder to rely on consistently. A vast majority of the world’s best being a superb short game with them to the pros – chipping a golf ball is largely a right-brain exercise mastered by those who find the touch at an early age.
Putting, meanwhile, is a maddening mix of confidence and science. Perhaps it’s worth noting that all four Match Play semifinalists use a standard-length putter to get their ball in the hole, which isn’t likely to quell the protests of those who believe long putters should be illegal. The topic led to some provocative discussion during the Golf Channel’s “State of the Game” forum and remains one of the more persistent issues in my live chats for GolfChannel.com.
Maybe it was the 45-foot broomstick bomb made by Bill Haas to win the playoff at Riviera, the strength of the dissenting cry or a mere surge of common sense, but I have gone from somewhat neutral on the matter to strongly in favor of a long-putter ban. We’re not talking about a “competitive advantage” here, per se, but the inarguable notion that anchoring the club nullifies the most obvious (and important) physical task required in putting: prudent lateral movement of the arms and hands.
No question, the growing number of prominent young players who use long putters is both alarming and relevant to the issue itself. You simply cannot push or pull a putt if the instrument is braced against your body, and thus, the “diminished skill” factor is something the Royal & Ancient and USGA must address immediately.
I honestly don’t care if the 16 handicap at my club shows up with a long putter. What bothers me is that pro golf’s competitive landscape absolutely has been affected – that the game’s most significant pressure-related activity is made easier by something that resembles a crutch in both length and purpose. Long putters may not be saving careers, but you can’t look me in the eye and tell me they aren’t compromising the game’s integrity.
On the seventh hole of his quarterfinal match against Matt Kuchar, Mahan hit a spectacular approach from just over 200 yards, stopping the ball about 6 feet from the flag. Kuchar, whose second shot had barely reached the front of the green, pulled out his bellystick and rolled his 50-footer just inside Mahan’s mark, leaving him 5 feet for par on almost the exact same line as his opponent.
When Mahan burned the right edge, life didn’t seem fair – he’d played the hole much better than his foe but was sure to walk away with a halve. Alas, Kuchar also missed wide-right, anchor and all, at which point a tiny little dose of justice had been served. Golf can be like that sometimes.
Hawkins is a contributing writer with more than two decades of journalism experience.
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