MARANA, Ariz. – It is the same repeatable swing, same garish wraparounds, same boyish mannerisms, but even before his 2-and-1 finals victory over Rory McIlroy on Sunday in the high Arizona desert those closest to Hunter Mahan knew there was something different.
Even before he finished in the top 10 in four of his last five events in 2011, before he went 4-1 at last year’s Presidents Cup, before he was Houdinied out of untold riches at the Tour Championship, Sean Foley could see the difference.
As the thoughtful swing coach recalls, there was a paradigm shift. There was a change in attitude so profound as to make those inside Mahan’s inner circle marvel at the transformation.
“I tell you where I saw it the most. When I started with Hunter I would say his identity was really swept up in how well he was playing so he’d play well and be in a good mood, play bad and be in a bad mood,” Foley said. “Then (wife) Kandi came along, huge difference, she just wouldn’t let him sulk.”
For Mahan’s caddie John Wood the transformation became profound at last year’s Presidents Cup in Australia where he chaperoned rookie Bill Haas to victory on Day 3 and emerged as a legitimate team leader.
“With Haas he kind of took on that elder statesman role,” Wood said. “He’s not as rattled by stuff like he used to be, he just kind of stays in his bubble.”
With the world poised for the imminent crowning of a new No. 1 on Sunday and McIlroy’s near flawless play through five matches at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Mahan made a beeline for the bubble.
But then what’s a second WGC title and $1.4 million in winnings to the man who went down the stretch last fall at the Tour Championship with $11.4 million in combined winnings and FedEx Cup cash on the line?
“At the FedEx Cup (Tour Championship where he lost to Haas in a playoff), Roger Maltbie says to Hunter, ‘My condolences,’” Foley recalled. “Hunter says, ‘Condolences? Did someone die?’ That’s maturity right there.”
Indifferent to the hype surrounding McIlroy’s march to the top of golf’s heap on a golf course with less defense than an NBA guard at All-Star weekend, Mahan played his first seven holes in the afternoon finale in even par, won a hole with a bogey (No. 7) and found himself 4 up through 10 holes.
McIlroy, who doubled the seventh from the middle of the fairway with a wedge in his hand, would rally, chipping in for eagle at the 11th and playing his final seven holes in 5 under par but the lesson here was clear – you can’t spot one of the game’s best ball-strikers four holes and expect him to return the favor.
“Deep down I wanted to postpone that crowning of Rory as No. 1 for a little while,” smiled Mahan before conceding that the Ulsterman seems destined for the top spot.
And deep down McIlroy may have peaked a few hours too early. In the much-anticipated semifinal showdown between him and Lee Westwood the Ulsterman buried his former ISM stablemate with a torrid stretch of five birdies in seven holes starting at the sixth that featured 75 feet of birdie putts.
If either McIlroy or Westwood won this week’s world gathering they would have unseated Luke Donald atop the World Golf Ranking. It was exactly the kind of juicy subtext this event needed, but probably just enough to throw McIlroy off.
When asked if he thought the semifinal drained him, the game’s most straightforward 22-year-old was at his sodium-pentathol best.
“Yeah, it probably did,” McIlroy allowed. “This is no disrespect to the other two guys in the other semifinal, but it was almost like, to me it was like my final in a way. That was the one I wanted all week and I got it. That’s what I got myself up for.”
McIlroy, who beat Westwood in the morning match 3 and 1, will have another chance to unseat Donald at next week’s Honda Classic and he can take solace in a game that produced a dominant performance for the better part of five days.
Tiger Woods could not make the same claim.
For the third consecutive Match Play Woods did not make it to Friday, surviving a Round 1 shootout against Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, 1 Up, and missing a 5 ½-footer at the last against Nick Watney on Thursday to lose by the same margin.
Following that miss Woods figured it would take “a day” to fix his putting woes, which is a good thing because he doesn’t have a lot more than that before he tees off on Thursday at PGA National.
“I'm taking it back shut. I need to make that toe move. I need to feel the release of my stroke,” said Woods, once so dominant in the WGCs. But now he has gone seven starts without a victory and in his last six world meet-and-greets he’s finished T-33, T-37, T-10, T-33, T-6 and T-78. “It's hard to release it when the blade is going under. It's shut. And hence I block it open.”
The only good news for Woods was he’s not Donald. In 2011 the Englishman went 89 holes without trailing on his way to victory. This week Ernie Els put him on the ropes with a birdie at No. 3 in the first round and the defending champion never recovered, losing 5 and 4.
Donald remained No. 1 in the world, although it’s starting to appear as if he’s only renting the space.
McIlroy seems poised to assume the role, as does Westwood, who was arguably more dominant than the Northern Irishman yet lost the consolation match, known in these parts as the NIT portion of the schedule, 1 down to Mark Wilson.
And after his Sunday victory Mahan, who will crack the top 10 in the world this week, may also join the conversation for the top ranking. Not that he seems concerned either way.
“If I wanted to be the player that I felt like I could be I was going to have to change,” said Mahan, who joins a group of just six players with multiple WGC titles. “I had to take it easy on myself. Basically not try so hard.”
Same guy, much different outlook.