Hunter Mahan is a stud. Twenty-five and single, little fluffy goatee, shades on the brim of his Ping hat, sneaky long, big white teeth. His caddie gives him clubs, yardages, bottles of mineral water mixed with Amino Vital. His psychologist is on speed dial. He's loaded with talent and confidence and game. He has the strut and the Oklahoma State (first-team All-America there) pom-pom headcovers. Uses good for well when it suits him. Finishes 13th at Oakmont and comes to Hartford, to a tournament he first played as a teenage amateur, and it looks ...
Truth? To hell with the golf gods. What he's really thinking when he arrives at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., last week? The course looks easy. After Oakmont? Cake. He birdies the 1st hole last Thursday, then the 2nd and the 3rd and the 4th, signs for an eight-under 62, breezes into the tent and says, "I really didn't do anything spectacular. Put the ball in play." You're not going to beat this guy, not even in your dreams.
Now Vijay Singh and David Toms and Fred Funk might have begged to differ, and they were all going good (as Mahan might say) through 54 holes last week, and if you had all three of them in your fantasy league, you'd feel like a genius. But all three of them spent Sunday mostly hanging around, making pars, and you can't do that at Hartford. By late Sunday afternoon the large galleries had settled in on the final twosome of the day. At that point, on the longest Sunday of the year, the first stop on the Tour's lazy summer schedule was in full swing, right on cue.
There was Jim Nantz setting up Nick Faldo in the CBS booth, dappled light all over the course and Travelers executives, old-school insurance guys in blazers and ties, watching from the edges. They bought the tournament name and saved an event that the Ponte Vedra suits could not kill, and now Hartford is the Travelers Championship.
But it remains what it's always been, a local event, philanthropic and entertaining. Last week, it was wildly so, even after Singh and Toms and Funk faded and there was only one man left who could forestall the inevitable, Hunter Mahan's first victory on the PGA Tour. That man was a 40-year-old journeyman, a Nationwide tour regular playing on a sponsor's exemption.
Jay Williamson came to Hartford with no Tour status no Tour wins, no big Tour bag, one wife, three kids, no nanny (at least not on Sunday afternoon, when Kim Pride, wife of Dicky, watched the Williamson kids despite the fact that her hubby had missed the cut).
The Prides, the Williamsons, whole bunches of others at Hartford, know all about the MC life. That's the other Tour, the one Phil and Tiger barely know.
The stakes at Hartford were higher for Williamson than they were for Mahan. Mahan's day would come sooner or later. Everyone in golf could see that. Williamson couldn't make the same statement. At his age, the journeyman knows how few chances you get to win and to get yourself on firm ground. Ask Bobby Wadkins or Jay Delsing or Dan Forsman. You've got to seize the day.
A win would make Williamson an exempt player through the end of 2009; get him into next year's Masters; pay him $1.08 million; allow him to make a schedule, a year's worth of mortgage payments, school tuitions and all the rest. Sure, a win would be huge for Mahan too, but in golf as in life it's hard to compare 25 and single with married and 40 with three kids.
Williamson got into Hartford only by "writing for a spot," as the fringe players call a sponsor's exemption. Scores of players do it, and it's safe to say not one of them enjoys it. Williamson did it by e-mail.
Williamson had an in at Hartford. He went to college in the insurance capital, at Trinity, where he was the captain of the baseball and hockey teams. (He was barely a golfer in those days.) He graduated in four years with a degree in political science. So he wasn't Rocky Balboa or even Roy (Tin Cup) McAvoy.
Williamson is a son of the Midwest (St. Louis) who went to a private high school (John Burroughs) and whose family had a membership at a country club (Bellerive, where the Tour's going in 2008 for the BMW Championship).
Still, there's a gritty jock in there. His left calf is half the size of his right one, the residue of a childhood clubfoot. After college he moved to Orlando to work at the Grand Cypress Resort. When he was Mahan's age he was a kid in polyester knickers who parked cars, but the job came with one big benefit: unlimited range balls. Mahan and Williamson in the final two-ball was a junior version of the 2000 PGA Championship, with Mahan in the role of Tiger Woods and Williamson playing Bob May, except this one wasn't about sporting history or old jugs or any grand thing. It was simply golf.
After one hole on Sunday (bogey for Williamson, par for Mahan) the two were tied at 11 under. Mahan's golf was close to perfect, one solid, smart, stinging shot after another. Williamson was slightly off in the rough here, a bad chip there but he wasn't going away. Through 14, Mahan had a two-shot lead. Williamson made a birdie on 15, a drivable par-4, and Mahan made bogeys on 16 and 17.
The can't-miss kid and the journeyman came to the 18th hole with Williamson leading by a shot.
Both drove it in the fairway on the par-4 last, and Williamson hit his approach shot, with a seven-iron, to 11 feet.
Mahan stuffed his, a nine-iron to five feet. As they approached the green Williamson waited for Mahan for a moment, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Nice shot."
It was a gracious move. Some other guys LannyWadkins, Hubert Green, Tom Watson, Curtis Strange, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, a long list of Hall of Famers would probably never have thought to do it. They'd be thinking about nothing but the putt to win. Nicklaus might have done it. Dan Forsman, you could see him doing it too.
Williamson missed on the low side, and Mahan's was smack-dab in the middle.
The playoff hole, played on 18, was the same thing all over again: Williamson close, Mahan closer.
Williamson missed; Mahan closed the deal.
Williamson cleaned out his locker and said, "My life's better now than it was on Monday."
You couldn't argue that. He earned $648,000, and his second-place finish got him a spot in this week's Tour stop in Flint, Mich.
But how the rest of his year will play out he doesn't know. Where he will play next year he doesn't know. Where he'll play in 2009 he doesn't know. He wasn't even close to elated. A chance had come and gone. There's no saying when the next one will turn up.
In victory Mahan said something insightful: "After you play out here for a little bit you realize, This is hard. Being a professional golfer, it's not easy. Not easy to win. There are a lot of great players who haven't won yet. You definitely think you're good enough to win. I thought I was. But you just never know what's going to happen."
In April he'll be in the field at Augusta. The last time he was there, he was a hotshot amateur. There are a lot of hotshot amateurs. Over the years, fewer than a thousand guys have won on the PGA Tour. It's an elite club. Hunter Mahan is now in. At this very moment there are a few hundred golfers out there, prowling the country, trying to join him. Jay Williamson is one of them. He's still at large.