"Golf never really had the best athletes. They all played football and baseball and basketball. Now good athletes are playing golf."
Angus Murray
Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Ryder Cup is not won or lost by one man. But it can seem that way. Especially when the competition hinges, as it did in October, on the final, nerve-shredding singles match. "There's nothing like being the 12th man in the Ryder Cup," says Hunter Mahan, who along with Europe's Graeme McDowell filled the anchor slot in Wales. "And then to have it come down to you, with everyone against you..." That was the scene on the tee of the par-3 17th hole at Celtic Manor, with Mahan needing to win the last two holes to retain the Cup for the United States. What followed — a heavy 4-iron, a stubbed chip and a 3-and-1 loss — was uncharacteristic of a player who exudes California cool and Texas grit. Yet it was hardly shocking, because Ryder Cup pressure can make the world's best tremble. Mahan remains upbeat about his 2010 Ryder Cup experience, which is a good thing, as the 28-year-old three-time Tour winner has many more Cups to come. Just days after returning from Wales, Mahan discussed the Ryder Cup "tornado," how he unwinds, and why he's rarely without his trademark shades.

\nWalk us through those last two holes at the Ryder Cup.
After I made the birdie on 15 I was 1-down, and I thought I had a chance. Sixteen, 17 and 18 are good holes where things can happen. McDowell had a perfect shot on 16. He just played that hole beautifully and made a great birdie. It really turned the tide of the match. If I had made that putt it might have turned the momentum to our side.

What's going through your mind at the 17th tee?
There was no question that we had to win the last two holes. There was so much going on at 17. It was like nothing I've ever felt playing golf before. I never saw so many people and I never felt so much energy. At a tournament, you're not used to people rooting against you. In 2008 [at the Ryder Cup at Valhalla], everybody was for us, and here it was the opposite. It was a crazy hole, but it was fun. [McDowell] hit a good shot. I was feeling a lot of adrenaline and I should have taken more time [on my tee shot].

Your tee shot was short, which left you with that fateful chip shot. What happened?
I knew [McDowell] was going to make par. There was no question I had to make it, and it was a shot I definitely rushed.

How did you end up as the anchor?
I had asked to go first. I just wanted to get out there. But in the first lineup Corey [Pavin] made, he had me last. The more I thought about it, I thought it was a great play. Because of the way I play, I'm going to be in a lot of holes and [the anchor spot] fits my style. I thought it was perfect. I was right where I wanted to be. I couldn't have been more excited to be in that position, and I hope I get that opportunity again. It's the best spot in golf. I've been in the thick of two majors and it was nothing like [the Ryder Cup].

Not many Ryder Cups come down to the last match. Do you think you could get another chance?
It might happen in two years because of how close our teams are. It's really 50- 50, and everybody on both teams realizes how much fun it is and how hard it is to win at that level.

You earned 3.5 points on the winning U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2008. What stands out most from your experience this time?
How the team bonded and how close we became. There were so many new guys on the team, we were curious how the personalities were, how they were going to react to stuff. We had an absolutely unbelievable time together hanging out and we learned a lot about each other. You learn a lot more about people when bad things happen than you do when good things happen. I just take back all the great times we had and how much fun we had and how close we got — obviously, some guys closer than others. I think everyone realized how important the Ryder Cup is to us.

You teared up when facing the media after your singles match this year. Why were you so hard on yourself?
That's how I am. I'm working on not being so hard on myself. The biggest problem for me is that [I was] stuck in it. I was stuck in this tornado of the Ryder Cup, so I was always reminded of it. It was hard to get out of it and have some free time to just let things settle. It just was an onslaught of getting done, being in the locker room, the closing ceremonies, speaking to the media, going to the hotel. It was just never-ending, being reminded of what happened. That was the hardest part.

So you couldn't escape it.
Yeah, it was not being able to get an hour of just relaxing. Because there's nothing like being the 12th man in the Ryder Cup, and then have it come down to you, with everyone against you and against what you're trying to do, and then being behind in the first place. I wasn't even tied. I was behind the whole day. There wasn't a lot [fan support] on our side, for one, but it was definitely a position that I would die for the chance to be in again.

Did anyone say anything to you afterward that was particularly meaningful or helpful?
The Ryder Cup is so emotional. It's impossible to explain to anyone who hasn't played it. Stewart Cink was exceptional in the press conference and I appreciated that. Jim Furyk talked to me about how he was in a similar position in the late 1990s. Everybody on the team came up to me. They were fantastic.

You had your best year as a pro in 2010, with two wins, including a World Golf Championship. Was there a sense of everything falling into place?
I felt like things were getting better, but I was much more inconsistent this year than I was last year. I knew I was on the right path, but I wasn't getting the results I was looking for. I knew what I was doing was right, and I figured if I kept doing the right stuff, the results would happen. I had a couple of good peaks for some good events. It's just an accumulation of things, getting better every year. There's a lot more going on for me personally this year — I'm getting married — and everything affects your game and your golf. It's just life. You put a lot of time into practicing, and personal stuff has an impact on those things.

It's been building for a while, but 2010 felt like the year the post- Tiger generation really broke through. Would you agree?
I think so. The new guard comes in and it's just a natural evolution of the game. It happens. We're seeing a lot of good young players coming out and winning. They're stepping up on Tour without much of a learning curve, just playing and having no real conscience and no real fear of anything.

Other than a little hip-hop style, what stamp is your generation putting on the game?
Golf never really had the best athletes. They all played football and baseball and basketball and other sports. Now good athletes are playing golf. You see it in their golf swings. They're not all the same anymore. They're different. Rickie Fowler raced motorcycles. Look at Dustin Johnson. He's a freak of an athlete. He's got huge hands, long arms, he's tall and he can jump through the ceiling.

If you guys are seen as real athletes, does that give golf a broader appeal to fans?
I think so. There's always been a debate whether golf's a sport or not. To me it's a no-brainer, but to other people it's a question. Well, I've watched great athletes like Michael Jordan play golf and they don't play very well, and they don't look very athletic when they're swinging a club, so there's no doubt that golf's an athletic sport.

Who's the best player in his twenties?
It's so hard to say. That's something the media likes, but it fluctuates every tournament. Someone wins a tournament and they're the best twentysomething. Then someone else wins a different tournament and they're the best twentysomething. I don't think we as players look at it that way. We look at it as whoever is the top in the World Rankings, whoever that guy is then he's the best twentysomething.

Are you in the mix?
I think so. Winning that WGC event and two in a year helped me out a ton. Other than the majors those WGC events are the biggest events we have. That's something nice for me to put on my résumé, I guess. But Dustin Johnson was up there in a couple of majors this year. Anthony Kim is playing great, and Martin Kaymer has won a major. It's easy to say Martin is the best because he has a major and not many guys have those.

Who's the best player, period?
[Pauses.] I would probably say Matt Kuchar, followed by Jim Furyk, just based on the FedEx playoffs and [Kuchar's] consistency. Kooch would be 1A and Furyk would be 1B.

You've had top-10 finishes in every major except the PGA. Which one do you think gives you the best chance to win?
I played well at Augusta the last two years. I love playing there. It's just an incredible place. I feel like my game can be good at any of the venues because I hit a lot of fairways and I hit a lot of greens. But to win a major I need to make some more putts and make a few key up-and-downs during the rounds. That will help out a lot.

Has winning a major been harder than you thought it would be?
No. It's hard. It's four times a year and it's somehow peaking at the right time. You look at great players who've won one major. Jim Furyk has won one. Davis Love has won one. Phil's only won four and he's won almost 40 times on Tour. The group of multiple major winners is tiny, and you have great players who have just one. Steve Stricker has probably played better than anyone the last two years and he doesn't have any. It's difficult.

Your coach, Sean Foley, is known for mixing philosophy and hiphop into his teaching — and more recently for working with Tiger. What's he like?
Sean is different. He can be borderline cocky and arrogant, but he's very smart and he works extremely hard at knowing the swing, and the fundamentals and biomechanics that go into it. Which is good for me, because when he tells me something I know it's not an opinion or a theory, it's a fact. And he's a very good communicator — he knows what to say to us, how much to say and at what time.

What's the difference between how Sean works with you and Tiger?
Tiger and I might do the exact same thing but we have opposite feelings for it. So Sean has to know that and think, "How am I going to communicate to Tiger and Hunter how to do the same thing, but in a different way?"

Do you feel like Sean's inside your head, like a mind reader?
We just talk a lot and communicate a lot. A lot comes from us telling him what we're feeling and what we feel that works and doesn't work. A teacher can take you to a place, but you have to go the rest of the way. He can't take you to the promised land. He can help you but you have to figure out, "OK, this is what he's saying, how do I manipulate that so that I feel comfortable with it and get the result that I want."

Do you worry about Foley not having time for you now that he's with Tiger?
That's a big misconception. When Tiger worked with Butch Harmon, Butch worked with a lot of guys. Hank Haney had Mark O'Meara before Tiger and that was it. I don't think guys looked at Hank and said, "I want to work with that guy." I just don't think he was that kind of coach.

You're getting married in January. How did you meet your fiancée, former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Kandi Harris?
Through a friend of a friend. Her sister married Jason Enloe, who plays on the Nationwide Tour, and Jason knows my sports psychologist. It was just one of those things where he said, "You should meet her and I think you two would really get along." [Cheerleading] was a very small part of her life. She did it for a couple of years and had a great time. It's funny. If she was a cheerleader for any other NFL team, it probably wouldn't matter. But being a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader gets more attention.

Did Kandi follow golf before she met you?
No, not at all, but a good thing about her is her passion for what I do. She understands it and she understands what I put into it and how much I love it. She just cares. She had an unbelievable time at the Ryder Cup. She wants to be involved. She just loves watching me play. And if she was still cheering, I would love watching her cheer.

How do you spend your downtime?
We come home and chill out for a few days. Maybe check out a movie. I like cars and I'm always intrigued by what's coming out, but I have somebody who works on them. I've got season tickets to the Cowboys and we'll go to Mavs games when they're in town. I love looking at homes, reading up on design.

Now that you're getting hitched, will you have to forfeit an Entourage-like lifestyle?
[Laughs.] No. I was an only child. I like my alone time. I don't need a lot of people around me, I just like chilling by myself. We're moving soon, a little closer to Dallas, and we're looking toward a future with kids.

Last question. The sunglasses: Do you wear them just to look cool, or do they in fact help your game?
I've worn them playing since I was 12 years old. My dad wore them, so I wanted to be like him. Now I have to have them. I couldn't walk outside without sunglasses anymore. My eyes are too sensitive. But it's also something not many people wear on the course. I can be creative and I have a great partner in Sundog. It's fun to be different in that sense. Luckily with technology you've got lenses that can help you see the grass better on the greens. Eventually maybe you'll just push a button and the sunglasses will tell you what shot to hit [laughs].

You May Like