Hunter Mahan has won six times on the PGA Tour, played 15 full seasons against the game’s best and is a seven-time Ryder/Presidents Cup player, but this was different.
“If feels almost weird to secure my [Tour] card,” he said on Tuesday from his home in Dallas.
Two days after finishing runner-up at the DAP Championship on the Web.com Tour to guarantee his return to the big leagues, Mahan was still processing the accomplishment.
For a player who was once considered one of the game’s best ball-strikers, an otherwise nondescript 67 on Sunday at Canterbury Golf Club in Beachwood, Ohio, felt every bit the tipping point after three woeful years.
“It’s a finite thing [being on the PGA Tour],” said Mahan, who last qualified for the Tour playoffs in 2015. “You can take that for granted a lot of the time. At 36, most sports figures are talking about retiring and moving on to other things.”
It wasn’t lost on Mahan that he’s now talking about a new chapter in his competitive career, considering that just three years ago he didn’t know where his golf ball was going much less his career.
Things began to unravel in 2016 when he failed to record a single top-10 finish on Tour for the first time in his career. He missed more cuts (13) than he made (nine) in ’16 and had more rounds of 73 or higher (26) than rounds under par (18).
Web.com Tour Finals standings through two events
“Every day the swing felt different and I didn’t know what I was doing. No one wants to do that and not have a silver lining,” he said. “I had no confidence in how to play golf. That’s when you pick up and do something else.”
In hindsight, Mahan said he didn’t quite arrive at that professional crossroads in large part because he found a glimmer of hope with swing coach Chris O'Connell.
In 2010, Mahan won twice and claimed the first of his two World Golf Championships. He ranked 10th on Tour in strokes gained: off the tee that season. In ’16, during his darkest hours, he plummeted to 130th off the tee.
“Where my game was it was something I had never really experienced before,” Mahan said. “I’d never been through such a low peak where you’re trying to find yourself again.”
The problem, at least from O'Connell’s perspective, was easy enough to discover – Mahan’s fundamentals were off. The fix, however, was anything but easy.
Mahan now describes a familiar process of learning a new swing and perfecting it on the practice tee, but transitioning that form to the golf course is always the most difficult part.
“At some point you have to trust in it and just keep grinding away,” Mahan explained. “The setbacks just felt more complicated. Trying to find what Chris was telling me, it’s like you’re pulling something through mud.”
When he began the 2017-18 season, Mahan finally felt comfortable on the range and the course, and was starting to gain some much-needed confidence with a pair of top-20 finishes at the Safeway Open and Sanderson Farms Championship.
But that momentum was fleeting and he slipped into a familiar pattern of missed cuts and mediocre finishes. He also became understandably distracted when his sister-in-law, Katie Enloe, was diagnosed with leukemia. Mahan withdrew from the Quicken Loans National in June when Enloe, the wife of SMU men’s golf coach Jason Enloe, was sent home from the hospital to spend her final days alongside friends and family. Katie Enloe died on July 3.
“The situation at home and family life takes a lot out of you,” Mahan said. “Trying to play golf going through that is hard. There was a lot of really good golf there, but there were times when my energy was low and it was hard to bring it every single day and trying not to break down with tears at any moment. It’s a challenge, but we all go through it.”
All the pieces, both professionally and personally, finally fell into place last week in Ohio. Having been lost in the competition for hours, Mahan said it wasn’t until the 17th hole on Sunday that he allowed himself to escape from the moment.
All of the work and effort that it took for Mahan to dig himself out of the deepest hole of his career flashed through his mind, but it wasn’t happiness that he felt – it was accomplishment.
“I don’t think happy is the right word. I was happy before,” he said. “I feel more confident in myself as a golfer now, but my happiness was not going to be determined by how I played. I feel like now I can go to the golf course and enjoy playing and enjoy competing.”
After 15 full seasons on Tour, enjoying golf again is truly something new.