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Despite the struggles of Tiger and Phil, Mahan led a strong week for the U.S.

Photo: Carlos M. Saavedra/SI

Hunter Mahan joins Dustin Johnson, Anthony Kim and Sean O'Hair as the only Americans in their 20s with at least three tour victories

AKRON, Ohio — First, the good news. There are some rays of hope for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Hunter Mahan turned bulldog and buried the field with a final-round 64 to win the Bridgestone Invitational.

The win lifted Mahan to second on the Ryder Cup points list. He's a lock to make the team, and the victory caps a big summer for Mahan, who got engaged to his girlfriend, Kandi Harris, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and Dallas Mavericks dancer, at Pebble Beach on Saturday night before the U.S. Open.

Ryan Palmer finished second, Bo Van Pelt tied for third, Sean O'Hair was fifth, Jim Furyk and Jeff Overton tied for sixth. Steve Stricker and Matt Kuchar had top-10 finishes, too. There are more Americans playing well at the moment, it seems, than at any other time this year.

Now the bad news: Tiger Woods had his worst tournament ever. He finished 30 shots behind Mahan. Thirty. Behind. Mahan. "I never thought that would be possible," Mahan said with a laugh. "It never crossed my mind."

Asked if Tiger should be on the Ryder Cup team, Mahan said yes without hesitation. "He'll find his game, I have no doubt about that," Mahan said. "He's going through a lot right now. You don't realize how much outside stuff affects golf. It does, it really, really does.

"When he gets back in a routine and he finds himself, he'll be fine. I think he needs the Ryder Cup right now. I think he wants to be in that setting."

Woods actually fielded questions from writers with some grace. Asked if he wanted to play in the Ryder Cup, he admitted, "Not playing like this. Definitely not. I mean, I wouldn't help the team if I'm playing like this. No one would help the team if they're shooting 18 over par."

He added that he thinks he can turn it around before the Ryder Cup. "We've got a lot of time between now and then," he said, "which is good."

The other bad news: Phil Mickelson was on the verge of taking over the No. 1 spot in the world ranking until he shot 78 Sunday and plummeted off the leaderboard. Mickelson also took the time to discuss his problems.

"It was a rough day, if you couldn't tell," he joked. "I felt good on the range, I hit some good shots. I felt sharp and ready. It just didn't happen. "

Mickelson said his final-round performance now lowers his expectations for the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. "You're only as good as your last performance, and this wasn't very good," he said. "There were still some decent shots, but the round just got away from me."

Mickelson and Woods are yet to carry a Ryder Cup team on their backs, as some fans expect them to. Woods wasn't able to play in the last Ryder Cup, which the U.S. won in Kentucky. So if neither player is in form, it's not necessarily a crushing blow.

The rise of Mahan, Palmer, O'Hair and Overton is good news for the U.S., though. It was Mahan's second victory this year. He also won in Phoenix. Mahan joins Dustin Johnson, Anthony Kim and O'Hair as the only Americans in their 20s with at least three tour victories, and he joins Ernie Els, Steve Stricker, Justin Rose and Jim Furyk as the only multiple winners on tour this year.

This could prove to be a breakout year for Mahan, a former Oklahoma State star. He was surprised to learn he'd jump to No. 2 on the Ryder Cup points list.

"I was hoping I would secure a spot; I didn't think I'd jump to second, but it's been a funny year," he said. "It's going to be a different team from years past. Jeff Overton is on the team — I mean, gosh, the guy is playing phenomenal golf right now. Then you've got Dustin Johnson. It's going to be interesting."

The top eight players on the points list will officially make the team after this week's PGA Championship. Captain Corey Pavin will select four additional players later. That is going to be interesting.

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