PARAMUS, N.J. – At the beginning, there was inspiration from a hero named David Finn. At the end, there was joy from the brilliant sight named Zoe Olivia.
But in between? Well, that was four-plus hours for which Hunter Mahan can take a bow. It was all him at Ridgewood Country Club on Sunday – a ball-striking, moment-seizing, statement-making golf performance, the type that purists have been screaming for and the kind that a certain Hall of Fame Ryder Cup captain has demanded in these late-summer days.
“I want guys who are playing well,” Tom Watson has said once or twice or 3,000 times when asked how he would come to choose his three final picks to the upcoming U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Well, Captain Watson, guess what? Mahan’s the name, solid’s the game.
And exactly how far at the forefront of things is this Ryder Cup business? Well, consider that after Mahan sidestepped his only miscue Sunday afternoon – a sloppy bogey at the 18th hole – to shoot 6-under 65 and overpower a stout field and win The Barclays, no mention of the $1.44 million prize or the ascension to No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings was made. Instead, Mahan’s caddie, John Wood, leaned in and said: “I hope captain Watson was watching.”
Mahan smiled, but he was thinking similarly.
“I have no idea what he’s thinking or if he has any sort of strategy, but I think a win is a good step in the right direction,” Mahan said.
With a smile, of course, and perhaps with a scent of understatement, because Mahan knows full well that two years ago the story was so painfully different. Back in the summer of 2012, Mahan was reeling. Having been atop the Ryder Cup points standing for a lot of 2011 and then for most of the early portion of ’12, he inexplicably started struggling. He missed the cut at the Open Championship, then at The Barclays, then played poorly at the Deutsche Bank Championship and what came next was … nothing.
No congratulatory phone call from U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love. No Ryder Cup nod. No red. No white. Only the blues.
Mahan had been on the losing end of the 12th and final singles match at Celtic Manor in 2010, Graeme McDowell’s win providing Europe with an unforgettable triumph. But missing out on the team in 2012 after having played so beautifully for most of 2011 and early 2012?
“That one definitely hurt,” Wood said. “But it wasn’t Davis’ fault. It was our fault. We blew it.”
It would be embellishment to suggest that Mahan has been motivated only by a chance to be on this year’s American team that will compete at Gleneagles in Scotland Sept. 26-28. Fact is, though he’s been arguably one of the world’s steadiest players since 2007, Mahan accepts that his scratchy play had left him off this year’s radar. He finished 25th in the standings, which Mahan is savvy enough to translate as a message. That being, step it up, son.
It started to come together at the Quicken Loans and then the Open Championship. Modest stuff, a T-24 and T-32, respectively, but after missing the cut in the RBC Canadian Open, Mahan finished joint 15th at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Then at the PGA Championship, he jumped onto the leaderboard and settled for a share of seventh.
“Everything was right again,” Wood said.
With the nine automatic picks solidified for Team USA and his name nowhere to be found, Mahan turned attention to something that has become a sort of playground of his. The FedEx Cup playoffs. He came in this year’s opener as the only player to have teed it up in all 28 playoff tournaments dating back to 2007.
You don’t get Ryder Cup points for that, but it sure fills you with a sense of satisfaction.
“That’s a long time. That’s a lot of golf,” Mahan said.
Ah, but to extend that streak and keep his perfect attendance through eight years, Mahan was up against it. He came into the playoffs 62nd and focused on only continuing the good things that he had been doing at Bridgestone and the PGA. Through 36 holes he trailed by three and entering Sunday’s final round he was within one of the lead shared by Jim Furyk and Jason Day. Mahan was right there, but guess what? So was a long list of players, the year’s first playoff tournament looking very much like a shootout.
For a while, it was, as Day went out in 33, Furyk in 34, Cameron Tringale in 32. Even a page from yesteryear, Stuart Appleby, joined the festivities. At one time or another, each of those four had at least a share of the lead, but it was the fifth guy to the party who made the most noise. Having turned at 10 under and been as many as two behind, Mahan birdied the par-4 11th, the par-5 13th, then pretty much announced that everyone else was playing for second with birdies at the 15th, 16th and 17th.
“I just felt good about how I was playing going into this week,” Mahan said. “I just stayed calm in my head.”
What helped keep Mahan calm, perhaps, is the sight of Finn. A courageous man with an insidious disorder called mitochondrial that affects his limbs and leaves him unable to speak, Finn attends a lot of PGA Tour tournaments in the northeast, pushed in a wheelchair by his family and friends. He has a long list of admirers – Phil Mickelson among them – but Mahan might be his favorite.
“He’s come to a lot of tournaments, but this is the first time I’ve been able to win with him here,” Mahan said.
It was also the first victory with a certain young lady in the crowd, albeit a surprise visit. Zoe Olivia turned 1 in July, the first child born to Hunter and Kandi, though mother and daughter had stayed at home in Dallas and not made the trip to Ridgewood CC. At least not until Sunday.
“The first time I saw them was when I turned around and was walking through the tunnel,” Mahan said.
That would have been after the 18th hole, an adventure that saw Mahan spray his tee shot right, pitch out, go wide left with a wedge, then have to make a 10-footer for bogey. “Not how I imagined playing the last hole,” Mahan said. “It was more exciting than it needed to be.”
Ah, but he had a three-stroke lead so Mahan could afford to be a little adventurous. What Watson might not be able to afford is giving up the chance to get hold of a little of this heat that Mahan is dishing out.
“He pretty much solidified my pick, if it was me,” Matt Kuchar said, standing nearby to be among the first to congratulate his friend. “He was on the fringe, maybe, but I don’t see any way he shouldn’t be picked. He’s a great teammate, a great locker room guy, and you have to love his consistency.”
Which is to say nothing about his class, his dignity, and his character – aspects that he showed to have an abundance of when Ryder Cup heartache tested him in 2010 and again in 2012.
He did more than win The Barclays yesterday. He passed his 2014 Ryder Cup test, too.
Give him a ticket to Gleneagles.