Mahan making strides to win major championship

Hunter Mahan lines up a putt on the 13th green during the third round of the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield in Gullane, Scotland

Hunter Mahan lines up a putt on the 13th green during the third round of the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield in Gullane, Scotland

GULLANE, Scotland – Forget whatever he might have learned from last month’s U.S. Open; go back to 2011, when Hunter Mahan was dealt a massive dose of humility.

He missed the cut in the Masters. Then in the U.S. Open. Then in the Open Championship.

For a world-class player, that’s soul-searching time and Mahan wasn’t afraid to take on the challenge or be brutally honest. “You have to believe before it can actually happen,” he said of the quest to win a major championship and two years ago he wasn’t beyond the first stage back then.

Now, he is.

His major-championship cupboard still is empty, but Mahan is making serious strides to change that. One month after working his way into the final group alongside Phil Mickelson at the U.S. Open at Merion, Mahan shared the low third round of the Open Championship, 3-under 68, to get to 1-under 212 and into serious contention at Muirfield.

Merion didn’t go so well – a final-round 74 left him joint fourth – and while he accepts the reality of that (“Not being good enough, I guess”), Mahan seems comfortable with where he’s at this week. Muirfield is pleasing to his eye (“All the fairways have definition”), loves how he’s playing “tee to green,” and has developed a great feel for the speed of the greens.

“A total team effort by my game today, for sure,” Mahan said.

He wasted little time in jump-starting things, too, because with birdies at Nos. 1 and 2, Mahan made huge strides forward. He had started the day 2-over and five off the lead, but when he birdied the par-5 ninth to make the turn in 34, Mahan was level par and just three back. The bogey at the par-3 No. 13 was offset by birdies at Nos. 15 and 17, but what left a sweet taste in his mouth was the way he salvaged No. 18.

His drive wide right, Mahan grimaced at his approach. “Just got away from me, kind of the start line there,” he said.

When he followed with a substandard bunker shot, Mahan was left with a 15-foot putt to save par. “(But) the putter was obviously very strong, and I had a pretty good feel for (the putt),” Mahan said. “I had a good touch all day.”

He did again on No. 18, slamming home the putt to become the first player to reach the clubhouse with a red number.

It hardly seemed to matter to Mahan what else was going on behind him, be it Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods, or anyone else. He was done for the day and knew that he would be in the thick of things, come Sunday’s final round. At 31, he’s been a fixture inside the world’s top 20 for a few years now. To those who suggest it’s difficult to win a major without a learning curve, Mahan shrugged it off.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think you need to. I think you can go out and win a major without anything,” he said.

But the reality is, Mahan not only owns two World Golf Championships among his five PGA Tour wins, he’s a month removed from the furnace-like pressure of the U.S. Open and four times he’s finished top 10 in a major. So he’s light years removed from the string of missed-cuts of two summers ago.

“Does it help? I think it does, because it can be overwhelming at times,” Mahan said. “Being in (one of) the last groups, to have everybody following you and seeing you and all the scores and everything, it can be overwhelming.

“But there are no rules in this game. You can kind of do whatever you want.”

With wife Kandi expecting the couple’s first child Aug. 16, Mahan – whose best Open finish is a T-6 at Carnoustie in 2007 – has a chance to add another life-changing memory tomorrow. Looking comfortable after recording one of three 68s on a demanding links, Mahan had a smile on his face.

A short time later, he had definitive news. Westwood (70—210) was the clubhouse leader at 3-under and his playing competitor in Sunday’s final round would be Mahan, two back and in the final group for a second straight major.

“I feel comfortable with my game and I’m excited about the opportunity,” Mahan said, though the though occurred: With Westwood, Woods (also 1 under, but in the penultimate pairing along with Adam Scott, level par), and Mahan all being Sean Foley students, how does the instructor’s time get divvied up Sunday morning?

Mahan laughed. Apparently, Foley has flown back home, so the lads will be on their own.

No worries, Mahan seemed to suggest. He's been prepared fully for the task at hand.

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