Plenty of Tour vets are struggling heading into PGA

Hunter Mahan

Hunter Mahan

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6:34:02 PM ET. 04/19/2014




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ATLANTA – Yes, he was in a hole.

Correction, his golf ball was in a hole, having found a spot where another player previously had gouged away at a piece of grass that was no longer. But that wasn’t a particularly grievous problem, not if Hunter Mahan – poised to play his third stroke at the 16th hole in last Saturday’s third round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio – paid attention, remained focused, maintained commitment.

Ah, but therein rests another hole, a hole that Mahan has dug from himself in this season of slight turmoil. Not with his personal life, mind you; that’s quite good, thanks to his marriage earlier in the year to Kandi Harris. He remains a wealthy young man with enormous talent and a true feel for who he is, but Mahan will be the first to tell you that it hasn’t been a boon for him this year.

Oh, the numbers look OK – Mahan has piled up $2,267,285 to sit 22nd on the money list, but a closer examination makes you wonder. His seven top 10s, for instance, came in his first 13 tournaments; since June, Mahan has played seven times on the PGA Tour, missing two cuts and finishing inside the top 30 just once. He concedes it’s a bit taxing at the moment.

Which sort of brings us to those “holes” – the one for his ball, the one for his game. The latter shouldn’t have been a huge issue. Yes, he was in a divot hole, but he’s a world-class player and had perhaps just a 90-yard flip wedge. But the other hole, the one in which he falls sometimes by complicating matters? Well, it proved Mahan’s downfall on that shot, because without the proper commitment, focus and attention, he made a midhandicapper’s swing and stunned onlookers for laying the sod over. So fat did Mahan hit it that it needed two hops to go about 30 yards and splash into the pond.

If he were momentarily stunned, it’s understandable, but Mahan quickly regained composure, took a drop and proceeded to flip the wedge to 8 feet and make the putt for a bogey.

To Mahan, it was microcosm of what’s been going on this summer – nothing wrong with technique, but oh, how that fat wedge hit at his problem of late.

“I think the No. 1 thing when you’re struggling is, to not create any more problems than there already are,” Mahan said. “It’s so easy to go out there and get upset and get down on yourself . . . (but) the less you get angry, the quicker you’ll get out of your funk.”

But there is no panic button on Mahan’s golf back. On the contrary, “I feel like all the parts are good,” he said. “I’m really happy with a lot of things I’m doing.”

On a positive note, Mahan sits 21st in the world rankings. OK, so he started the season at No. 19; that represents a drop hardly worth nothing and in that respect, Mahan has nothing in common with a long list of heralded colleagues whom comprise a storyline difficult to explain: Why are good golfers getting bad results this year?

Player (FedEx) Top 10s Rank (Jan.) Rank (Now)
Geoff Ogilvy (71) 3 27 42
Jim Furyk (73) 2 6 25
Stewart Cink (74) 1 47 85
Anthony Kim (89) 2 31 61
D.J. Trahan (104) 1 140 162
Ian Poulter (112) 1 11 17
Heath Slocum (121) *0 *54 *109
Camilo Villegas (125) *1 *37 *82
Ernie Els (126) *0 *12 *27
Pagraig Harrington (130) *3 *25 *69
Justin Leonard (141) *0 *126 *226
Louis Oosthuizen (145) *1 *21 *36
Paul Casey (147) *0 *8 *16
Angel Cabrera (150) *2 *56 *88
Henrik Stenson (178) *0 *53 *129

The names are somewhat stunning, and even Mahan conceded he was surprised at the list: Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Justin Leonard, Louis Oosthuizen, Paul Casey, Angel Cabrera and Henrik Stenson are not in the top 125 in the FedEx Cup standings and thus would they not be in the playoffs, which start in two weeks at The Barclays.

Look deeper, and there are even more surprising names who are inside the top 125 but hardly playing like postseason threats. Your FEC champion from 2010, Jim Furyk, is 73rd, just behind Geoff Ogilvy (71), while Stewart Cink (74), Anthony Kim (89), D.J. Trahan (104), Ian Poulter (112), Heath Slocum (121) and Camilo Villegas (125) are running way off of form.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we have just listed 15 names, eight of whom are major champions, all of whom are PGA Tour winners. All 15 have seen their world ranking fall since the start of the season, some dramatically (Leonard has tumbled 100 spots, to No. 226; Stenson has crashed 86 positions, now at No. 129), and some are coming perilously close to falling outside the top 100 (Cink is 85th, Cabrera 88th).

And for your consumption, try this: You can have a foursome of Els, Furyk, Casey and Poulter against my entry of Matt McQuillan, Sunghoon Kang, Shigeki Maruyama and Garrett Willis, most combined top 10s for $100. (As a qualifier, you cannot count the Tavistock Cup.)

A deal? Good.

Now, pay up, because Els and Casey have none, Poulter one, and Furyk – he of the 35 top 10s from 2007 to 2010 – has but two. That’s three combined for your world-class team; McQuillan (two), Kang, Maruyama and Willis combine for five.

You can go figure. Mahan took his shot: “It’s the natural law of things. Unfortunately, we’re human; we’re going to always screw up.”

•••

Harrington, who began the year ranked 25th and now is down to No. 69, this week not only has a chance to win his second PGA Championship in four years but can salvage what has been a lost season. He knows he needs a big effort to jump inside the top 125 and remain perfect in the FEC landscape – five seasons, five playoff appearances – but the Irishman also knows he won’t chase this thing into next week’s Wyndham Championship.

“I’ll be on holiday,” Harrington said.

Committed to changing things in his swing, Harrington said it’s tough to be outside the playoffs, but there’s a bigger picture at work here. If he falls short at this week’s major at Atlanta Athletic Club, Harrington said he’d let the boys in the U.S. take on the playoffs while he plays some European Tour stops.

“I love to play golf, so I’ll play golf somewhere.”

Mahan, whose woes haven’t matched those of Harrington, Els and others, is just as frustrated. The trick, he said, is to keep perspective.

“You just can’t expect to play great every year,” he said. “We just can’t do it. We’re too human.”

There’s also the factor of so many previously unheralded players – Gary Woodland, Webb Simpson, Fredrik Jacobson, Keegan Bradley, Scott Stallings, Spencer Levin, D.A. Points and Chris Kirk – performing beautifully in 2011, to the point where each sits inside the top 35 in the FEC standings.

“It’s pretty cyclical. Guys are leaving the game or getting older,” Mahan said. “Guys are coming out, young guys, and they’re playing well. It’s golf. You just have to keep working.”

And while the PGA of America bills this week’s tournament as “Glory’s Last Shot,” Mahan knows there isn’t that sort of desperation involved in this PGA Tour process. A major championship this week, as many as four playoff tournaments to come, and some Fall Series shows mixed in, if you prefer. There is, he said, a lot to play for, and at any given time a season could be turned around.

“You look at our careers, they’re so long,” Mahan said. “There are so many tournaments, so many rounds. Someone can get hot, play well and win, or get some top 5s, and it could make your year in a hurry.”

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