Of course, Hunter Mahan has never had much interest in respectable efforts and consolation prizes. “I want to feel like I’m in control,” he says. Fleeting stuff, like trying to catch a cloud with a fly swatter. Still, the quiet kid from Orange, Calif., wanted perfect. He wanted trophies.
That first keepsake took some time – better part of four seasons for those scoring at home. But it was his second Tour tilt that likely caused some sleepless nights. He’d come close, 11 top-10s since 2007, but each time perfection eluded him. A bad bounce here [2009 U.S. Open], a bad putt there [2009 Masters].
“I thought guys that win, you had to play perfect golf, which is definitely not the case,” Mahan says. “You just have to play better than everybody else. I know through my experiences that the more I tried, the harder I tried to be perfect, it just does not work out well.”
So “good enough” turned out to be good enough to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open. And good enough to finally exhale.
At 27 Mahan is less young gun, than he is hired gun. A ball-striker with a bad rap as an inconsistent putter who has performed admirably in the game’s biggest events, yet needed that second bottle cap like the Oscars needed a slow-play penalty.
There are no shortage of reasons for Mahan’s epiphany – new girlfriend, new workout regimen, new putting stance, but it all adds up to his embrace of something less than his best stuff that is wearing differently on the man they call “H” at TPC Doral.
“His new girlfriend has balanced him out more,” says Sean Foley, Mahan’s swing coach. “I’ve never seen him so happy.”
Foley is a thoughtful type, more likely to explain the esoteric principles of “can he win” than he would be trying to determine the probabilities of “will he win?”
“I don’t want to get too intellectual,” says Foley about 10 minutes too late. “When you can get rid of trying to show people, it’s so liberating. It’s like Yoda in 'Star Wars,' no trying, just doing.”
As for his new putting technique, Foley dismisses the notion that Mahan has suddenly been transformed into the “Boss of the Dallas moss.” For Foley it’s a numbers game clouded by the mirrors of solid ball striking.
Mahan is 32nd on Tour in greens in regulation, which means there are fewer chances for him to scramble for par, and more lengthy birdie attempts.
“Look at his proximity to the hole (33 feet), a guy is going to make 1 out of 40 of those,” Foley said. “But when you hear that you’re not a great putter so much it just manifest itself.”
But statistics only partially explain how a player with Mahan’s pedigree had notched just a single victory since joining the Tour in 2004. It is a reality that, in retrospect, haunted Mahan when he ducked in behind his signature wrap-around sunglasses.
“Last year he missed just one cut, a great year, but deep down he was disappointed he hadn’t made it onto the (winner’s) podium,” said Dr. Craig Davies, Mahan’s trainer who switched his man’s routine this year to focus on more functional training.
But if the demons were gnawing at him on Sunday in Scottsdale, one would never have noticed. Mahan played his last six holes in 4 under to cap a 65-65 weekend, a late-game run that included a pair of must-make putts of 4 and 6 feet.
“I was probably pressing maybe for a couple of years,” Mahan admits. “I knew I was playing well and I knew I was hitting it great. I just wasn't getting the results the first couple of tournaments, so I went out and started to let it happen and have fun and play golf.”
Seems about right that Mahan would have taken the path rarely travelled – a search for perfection that ended with the ultimate punch line.