2002: Perspective - Mahan’s medal all about the mettle

Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Three hundred and twelve players showed up at storied Oakland Hills for the 102nd U.S. Amateur last week. Hunter Mahan beat all but one of them.

Go 310-1 in another game – say, baseball, football or tiddlywinks – and they’ll throw a ticker-tape parade down Main Street. Finish 310-1 at the U.S. Amateur and you don’t even get a trophy. You’re handed a little blue velvet box with a medal inside. Bob Barker hands out better parting gifts on “The Price is Right.”

Hats off to Ricky Barnes, a deserving champion who not only knocked off Mahan in the 36-hole championship, 2 and 1, but also ousted Wake Forest’s Bill Haas, the tournament medalist. Barnes is built like a linebacker, but has the soft touch of a jewel cutter, and spent the weekend on the famed South Course performing so many magic tricks around the green that David Copperfield would have blushed.

In Mahan’s case, maybe the medal he received should have been a Purple Heart. By winning five matches and advancing to the championship opposite Barnes, Mahan, 20, a former U.S. Junior Amateur champion, was pulling off a little magic of his own.

Usually one of the top ballstrikers in the college game, Mahan clearly didn’t have his best stuff from tee to green. Playing in the toughest championship in golf – two days of stroke-play qualifying followed by six matches in five days – on a course a fellow Texan by the name of Hogan once called the toughest he’d ever seen, a true monster, Mahan kept on winning, often using smoke and mirrors.

“He didn’t have anything,” sighed Monte Mahan, Hunter’s father and a golf instructor at the Hank Haney Ranch. “His game was not even close. Today (Sunday), you saw a few sparkles with his driver, but for the most part this week, he had his ‘D’ game to go with an ‘A-plus’ heart. That’s what impressed me most about Hunter getting this far. He got here with guts and heart. A lot of heart.”

At one point during the tournament, Mahan abandoned his driver altogether, which was not a good sign, seeing that the South Course was playing 11 yards longer (6,988 yards) than it did for the 1996 U.S. Open. The greens not only have elephants buried in them, but camels and rhinos, too. Not the type of putting surfaces a player wants to be ripping 3-irons into all day.

But there was Mahan, once 4 down to Barnes, reaching the 561-yard 12th hole by blistering a 2-iron 254 yards to the front, and curling in a dramatic 45-foot eagle putt to rile a gallery estimated at more than 5,000. And there was Mahan at the 401-yard 15th, his tee shot some 50 yards behind Barnes’, again getting a long iron to the green, then making a 25-footer for birdie to walk off 2 down.

“It’s not fun to lose,” he said afterward, “but I played as hard as I could.”

Mahan and Barnes already had earned invitations to the Masters with their respective semifinal victories. In the championship, Mahan was playing for more than the Havemeyer Trophy. He was playing for history, trying to become only the second player to win both the U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur.

You may have heard of the other guy: Tiger Woods. Yet even when Woods was reeling off three consecutive Amateurs in 1994-96, he wasn’t exactly cruising. He trailed in all three of his championship matches before sowing the seeds from which a legend began to sprout.

“It’s kind of funny, because most people might say, ‘Well, geez, you only have to win six matches (to win the Amateur),’ ” said D.J. Trahan, a third-round casualty who was playing in his fifth U.S. Amateur. “I don’t know anybody who can go out there and win 5 and 4 every day, not even Tiger. It’s just the most difficult tournament in amateur golf to win, bar none. There are All-Americans all over this place.”

By Day 7, only two remained. One walked away with the prize; one departed Oakland Hills wondering what might have been.

Mahan, gracious in defeat, left the grounds with that itty bitty medal in the blue velvet box. He also left an indelible print on those who followed him at Oakland Hills.

“We’ll be seeing a lot of him on TV,” said Oakland Hills caddie Steve Kaiser, who carried Mahan’s bag all week. “They’re going to be getting him a green jacket, one of those claret jugs, one of those big silver trophies with the big handles on the sides. . . . By the time he’s done, he’s going to have ’em all.”

Most of ’em, anyway.

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