AKRON, Ohio – Hunter Mahan is doing things he never imagined possible, on and off the golf course.
He thought it was “crazy talk” when friends told him he would know immediately when he fell in love, until he met former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Kandi Harris in December and proposed to her in June.
How about beating Tiger Woods by 30 shots at Firestone?
“I never, ever thought that would be possible,” Mahan said Sunday, stifling a laugh at the absurdity of it all. “It never crossed my mind. It’s definitely different.”
Some six hours after Woods finished off the worst tournament of his career, Mahan looked better than ever in the Bridgestone Invitational. He ran off five birdies on the front nine to make up a four-shot deficit, delivered three clutch pars down the stretch to protect his lead and closed with a 6-under 64 for a two-shot victory over Ryan Palmer that brought plenty of perks.
Mahan earned $1.4 million to lock up a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, one of his primary goals this year.
He won his first World Golf Championship title and moved to No. 12 in the world ranking, a big step toward joining the elite in golf. And he won for the second time this year, becoming the fifth player this year with multiple victories on the PGA Tour.
“The last couple of weeks, the game has been good,” said Mahan, who won the Phoenix Open in February by shooting 65 in the final round. “I knew it was there. I know I just had to keep going and keep trust it. This weekend, I definitely just kind of let everything go and just had some fun.”
It was anything but that for Woods.
He had won seven times in his last nine starts at Firestone. He had not shot over par since 2006. But in a week that showed just how lost he is amid a personal life in chaos, Woods shot 77 on Sunday to finish at 18-over 298. It was his highest score on the PGA Tour as a professional or an amateur. He tied for 78th in the 80-man field, his worst finish ever.
He wasn’t even sure if he was worthy for the Ryder Cup.
“No one would help the team if they’re shooting 18-over par,” Woods said before flying up to Whistling Straits to sneak in a practice round for the PGA Championship next week.
Phil Mickelson looked just as bad Sunday. With his best chance ever to replace Woods at No. 1 in the world – Mickelson was tied for 10th and needed to finish alone in fourth – the Masters champion sprayed shots all over Firestone on his way to a 78.
It was the first time since the 1998 British Open that Woods and Mickelson both shot 77 or higher in the same round.
“It was a rough day, if you couldn’t tell,” he said.
For Mahan, it was mostly smooth sailing.
His 64 was the lowest final round by a winner since the Bridgestone Invitational became a WGC event in 1999.
“This is one of the bigger tournaments we play all year,” Mahan said. “And it’s definitely the best win of my career.”
The birdies were brilliant. The pars won him the tournament.
“I knew if I didn’t make a bogey I’d be all right,” said Mahan, who finished at 12-under 268.
The 28-year-old still managed to make it interesting, especially on the par-5 16th, which always seems to factor in this tournament. It’s where Woods has delivered so many pivotal shots over the years, where Padraig Harrington took an 8 in the final round last year.
Mahan was in the fairway, 227 yards away on a hole that had been shortened to 602 yards for the final round. He figured the only place he couldn’t miss was short – in the pond. To go long and right into the gallery would still leave him a simple shot to the green.
“I did not count on hitting it right and long, and into a flower bush,” he said.
That’s where he went, over the bleachers, over everything, and into a flower bed. Because it was deemed to be part of the cement cart path complex, he was given a free drop in the walkway to the 17th tee. He played it safe, chipping through the green and into the fairway, then putted to 3 feet to save par.
Before that, he holed a 15-foot par on the 15th. On the next hole, he saved his most intense fist pump for an 8-foot par on the 17th.
Palmer couldn’t catch him.
Two shots behind, he missed a 12-foot birdie on the 16th and a 20-footer on the 17th to end his hopes. Palmer closed with a 69.
“I can’t be disappointed,” Palmer said. “I played good today being under the gun. You’ve got to hand it to Hunter Mahan. He went out and did what I expected somebody to do, and shot a low round. I didn’t lose the golf tournament.”
Retief Goosen, the 36-hole leader until a triple bogey on the opening hole Saturday, closed with a 65 and tied for third with Bo Van Pelt, who shot a 67. Sean O’Hair, who shared the 54-hole lead with Palmer, shot 71 and wound up alone in fifth.
Since winning in Phoenix, Mahan had only one top 10 and missed four straight cuts. Part of that might have been related to proposing to his fiancee at Pebble Beach a week before the U.S. Open, and planning for a wedding in January.
Indeed, this is shaping up to be quite a year.