By RON BALICKI
During his 29 years as men’s golf coach at Oklahoma State, Mike Holder has produced more than his share of outstanding performers – Lindy Miller, David Edwards, Bob Tway, Scott Verplank, Brian Watts, Michael Bradley and Charles Howell III to name a few.
Now, Holder has another player who he thinks possesses as much talent and competitive fire.
“Hunter Mahan is one of the best players I’ve ever had,” Holder says of this year’s U.S. Amateur runner-up. “He ranks right up there with some of those great players we’ve had here.”
A pretty strong statement, but one that few would challenge. Mahan, 20, has the credentials, and enters the 2002-03 college season as Golfweek’s No. 2-ranked player behind Clemson’s D.J. Trahan.
In 1999, Mahan won the U.S. Junior, North & South Junior and Western Junior, and was named Player of the Year by Golfweek and the American Junior Golf Association.
Mahan, from McKinney, Texas, was a quarter-finalist at the 2000 U.S. Amateur, and was recruited by almost every major college in the country before deciding on Southern California. He won twice his freshman year and was a second-team All-American.
Mahan was born in Orange County, Calif., and lived there until he was 13, but Los Angeles isn’t his kind of town. “Stillwater (Okla.) is more my pace and lifestyle,” Mahan says.
So he transferred to Oklahoma State his sophomore season. He led the Cowboys with three victories, a third-place individual finish at the NCAA Championship and a 70.5 scoring average. Mahan was a first-team All-American last year as a sophomore.
“Being around Coach Holder all the time has been great. He’s been instrumental in my growing as a golfer and a person,” said Mahan, who also gives plenty of credit to his parents, mother Cindy and father Monte, a golf instructor who introduced his son to the game and still work closely with him.
“Hunter is quiet, but he is extremely focused on what he wants to accomplish,” says Holder. “Physically, he has all the tools to be a great player. He is very, very talented.”
Still, it often takes more than raw talent to be successful, not only in golf, but in any sport.
Someone who knows about that is Jack Armstrong, who, along with his wife, Dena, has served as host family for Mahan during the Porter Cup the last two summers in Lewiston, N.Y.
Armstrong has seen many fine athletes over the years. He was men’s basketball coach at Niagara University for nine years, and now is an independent radio/television broadcaster who covers the NBA’s Toronto Raptors as well as doing WNBA and college basketball games for Fox, ESPN and Empire Sports.
“It takes more than just physical talent to be a great player,” says Armstrong. “You have to have it up here (pointing to his head) and down here (pointing to his heart). I’ve always felt that success is 10 percent of what happens to you and 90 percent of how you deal with it. The better athletes are the ones that deal with it the best. I think Hunter does just that.
“I see Hunter as a work in progress. He has a growing inner confidence and a mental toughness about him. When he’s golfing, he’s all business, very intense. But in many ways, he’s a kid at heart and is able to enjoy himself away from the course.”
Still, other than “watching TV and doing some fishing,” as he puts it, Mahan’s primary focus is golf, and what he needs to do to continue improving – mentally and physically.
“I’m definitely more mature as a golfer,” says Mahan, who last season tied for first at the Jerry Pate, then won the Arizona Intercollegiate and the Ping/U.S. Collegiate. “I feel my game has gone to another level since last year as far as what I can do and how I handle things.
“I feel I can take a so-so round, or a bad round, and still stay in a tournament. I’m not losing as many shots as I was at the start of last year. I think I’m starting to realize what it means to be a better player mentally and, thanks to Coach Holder, I feel I’m becoming stronger in this area.”
Mahan enters the 2002-03 season as one of Golfweek’s 10 preseason first-team All-America selections.
“I think it’s going to be an exciting year,” said Mahan, who this summer helped lead the United States to victory at the Palmer Cup in Ireland. He also placed fifth at the Sunnehanna Amateur, tied for 19th at the Porter Cup and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the Western Amateur.
“My first priority is for the team to win the NCAA. Secondly, I’d like to win it as an individual. But mainly I just want to keep getting better and playing more consistent.”
Professional golf is in Mahan’s plans, but he’s in no rush to plunge into the pay-for-play ranks.
“I’m not setting any time limits,” he said. “When I feel I’m ready, when I feel I can compete at that level, that’s when I’ll decide.”
Until then, Mahan will continue his “work-in-progress” climb up the college golf ladder. It will mean a lot of long hours on the practice range, becoming stronger mentally and continuing to learn from Holder and others.
As Armstrong put it, “There is no doubt if you want to be the best, you have to be willing to pay the price. And as far as I’m concerned, Hunter is willing to pay that price.”