Hunter Mahan’s ever-sleepy eyes sit behind boxy hipster glasses, and his unruly blond hair is pinned under a flat-brimmed Dodgers cap cloaked in a grey hoodie. “You wouldn’t think I’m a golfer,” says the 26-year-old Mahan, who’s more Jeff Spicoli than Jeff Sluman. But then you look at Mahan’s resume — U.S. Junior Amateur champion, U.S. Amateur finalist, NCAA co-player of the year, PGA Tour winner and President Cupper — and it confirms that he’s not only a golfer, he’s a golfer destined for big things.
Mahan’s airy Plano, Texas, bachelor pad is full of more contradictions. A $200,000 Bentley sits in the three-car garage next to a Dodge pick-up flanked in flames. A golf glove autographed by Jack Nicklaus competes with a framed jersey autographed by NBA star Jerry Stackhouse. Oil paintings and fine wines mingle with flat-screen TVs and Xbox games.
Mahan (pronounced May-han) may still be maturing, but he is part of a wave of young, rich and moddish Tour pros whose time, it appears, is upon us: Nine different players under 30 have won in 2008. Love or loathe their brash belt buckles and orange shoes, they are the future of the professional game — a future, it turns out, to which Mahan has given some thought. Commissioner Finchem: we suggest you take notes.
Everybody is obsessed with anointing The Next Tiger. Where is he?
Yeah, everyone’s looking for the next young American to show himself. At the beginning of the year it was me, then Sean [O’Hair] won and it was Sean, then Anthony [Kim]. Everyone’s looking for the next player to challenge Tiger. I don’t think it’ll ever happen, so I don’t know what they’re looking for.
It’ll never happen?
It’s unrealistic because what you have to do to catch him is mind-boggling. Logistically it’s impossible. One guy has done it, and that was Vijay [Singh], who won eight times in a year, and he just nipped him [in the World Ranking]. I don’t understand why chasing Tiger is such a big deal. All I’m doing is trying to play as well as I can. That’s it — trying to win as much as I can.
Nine different twentysomethings have won on the PGA Tour in 2008. Is this the dawn of a new era?
It takes young guys a while to figure out how to play on Tour. It’s not easy. Anthony is such a rarity. But what you’re seeing now is a changing of the guard. Freddie [Couples] and Davis [Love III] and players like that have been around forever, been good players forever. This is the natural transition of guys coming up.
Most of you guys still aren’t household names. If Tiger pulled an Annika and decided to retire, the Tour would be in deep trouble, no?
Monumental trouble. The Tour would never admit it but they need Tiger way more than Tiger needs the Tour. It’s tough — people don’t know the younger players. If you ask most fans following a tournament to write down who they know, they’ll write Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
So shouldn’t the Tour do more to promote up-and-comers like you?
Personally I think they do a lot more for the international players. They try to get Camilo [Villegas] out there as much as any player I’ve ever seen, basically because while he’s good-looking and young, he’s also Colombian. He’s Latin. They don’t do the Americans many favors.
Do you feel slighted?
Yes and no. I understand where the Tour’s coming from. They want as much parity from different countries as possible so they can hit each market and gain as much money as they can. But when it comes to American players they don’t do as much as they could. As in anything, money talks.
After finishing 16th on the money list in 2007, you’ve slumped a bit. How do you assess your game?
I feel like I’m a better player than I was last year. I just haven’t turned the corner. I haven’t done all the little things as well as I need to. I’ve had two shots this year that cost me a minimum of $200,000 to $300,000. If I hit two good shots there, then I’m way up there.
You still worry about the cost of misplayed shots?
No, it’s more about the standings. It would have been a third and a top 10. Instead it was a sixth and a 12th. That’s just frustrating. Monetarily, I’ve got that out of my head. I like where I am right now.
Is your trendy style a product of your Southern California roots?
Could be. Also, my mother worked for Nordstrom [the department store] and my dad was never afraid to dress in his own way. So, yeah, I figure if I’m out there I might as well try to look good.
Do you surf?
You look like you should.
Yeah, I guess I do have that look about me. I am a huge admirer of surfers, though. They don’t look to make money — they just love to surf. They live from day to day and wave to wave.
Do you think the Tour is too staid?
I think the Tour’s extremely conservative, maybe because the other sports are in so much trouble in the eyes of the media. Basketball’s got its problems, the NFL’s got its problems, baseball’s got its problems. So the Tour is going to be as conservative as it can and not step outside its bubble.
How would you jazz it up?
I think when they got Justin Timberlake involved in the Vegas tournament, that was a good partnership. It’s shocking to me how many people want to play golf. My agency represents several basketball players and a couple of them are obsessed with the game. The Tour could work with the NBA or other leagues and combine the two and have some fun with that. But I can’t fault Finchem for trying to give the Tour a good image; we all want to keep it that way.
When did you realize you had world-beating talent?
I could swing it well [as a kid], but I wasn’t any great prodigy. Playing in Southern California there were a lot of great players, and I wasn’t as good as most of them. When I moved to Texas, for some reason my game just got better. I always dreamed of playing on Tour, but I don’t think I was ever like Tiger where I had posters of Nicklaus on the wall that drove me. I wanted to play but I didn’t have that crazy drive.
But your dad did. He was hard on you, right?
At times. It always came out of a good place, but he just wasn’t the best communicator. He sees that now. He’d say things like, “How did you hit that shot right there?” Most of the time he was a positive influence — he was always right there to help me out — but sometimes it was a little negative. He was just a parent trying to do everything he could when he didn’t need to.
Mentally, you have had your struggles on the golf course. Is that a result of your father always demanding perfection?
No, that’s just me. That’s been one of my weaknesses: trying to be perfect. And then I realized golf has nothing to do with perfection. It has to do with getting the ball in the hole in the quickest time possible. I haven’t seen anyone play perfect yet, and I don’t think I ever will.
You’ve said a turning point for you was the 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier in Dallas last June, when you shot 73-63. What happened?
Sometimes you play these U.S. Open qualifiers and it feels you’re playing just because you’re supposed to play them. But last year I really wanted to play well. I played the course two days beforehand and I just really wanted to make it. And that kind of made it worse. I played [the first round] expecting bad things to happen, and my psych guy [Neale Smith, who was caddying for Mahan] said this is no way to play golf.
What did he say exactly?
He didn’t say a whole lot, actually. It was very simple: “What you are doing is so bad, so negative, so stupid. You’re way better than this. You’re going to have to change if you want to be a better player.” So after good shots, he made me pump my fist and say, “Good shot.” I said it out loud. He wanted to make sure I knew that what I was doing was good, that I wasn’t the complete idiot that I thought I was.
Too bad you didn’t get that pep talk three years earlier.
I probably wasn’t ready to hear it then. Every time you struggle, you need to understand why you’re struggling, and most of the time when you’re struggling, it’s not as bad as it seems. That’s how I feel right now. Am I struggling? Maybe, but I know what I need to do. I’m not worried.
Were you surprised that it took you 122 starts to win on Tour?
Well, it’s different on Tour. The faults you got away with in college are magnified. It took a while to get over that. But it’s hard to win out here. Look at the guys who win on Tour: [Jim] Furyk’s won, what, 13 times? Seems like he should have won 30 times. Charles Howell has won twice — that seems like an anomaly. Sergio hadn’t won in three years [before the Players]. What Tiger does is pretty magical. Five, six wins per year is not normal.
Tell me about Monique.
She was your ‘companion’ at last year’s Presidents Cup, right?
Yeah, I was the only one going stag there and I guess they didn’t think that was appropriate. So Barbara [Nicklaus] and the Presidents Cup wives — well, at first they were looking at inflatable dolls, and I’m lucky because they didn’t find one. So they just found this little doll and called her Monique, I guess because we were in Montreal. So that was the running joke.
How did you two meet?
I think we were in the player room and they said some girl’s asking about you down the hallway. Of course it was all the Tour wives waiting by the elevator with Monique.
The Presidents Cup sounds like fun. Has the Ryder Cup become a chore?
Phil Mickelson and Tiger — their time is worth money. And for the PGA of America, the Ryder Cup is a moneymaker like no other. They don’t have to pay anything. I think when [Mark] O’Meara said players should get paid for it or some of the money given to their charities, I think [he said that] because the PGA takes so much out of the event that the players don’t really get anything. Is it an honor to play? Yes, it is. But their time is valuable. This is a business.
So there’s resentment?
I just feel like the players don’t have much control over it, and I don’t think they like that. I wouldn’t like that.
How do you explain the U.S. team’s recent woes?
I think Europe really, really takes it seriously. I think the U.S. does, too, but not like Europe. For one, every place they hold a Ryder Cup in Europe is a place on the European Tour schedule. That’s really smart because right away they have an advantage. The PGA of America could care less about winning it, honestly. They pick a site where they’re going to have the Senior PGA, the PGA and the Ryder Cup, which means less money they have to pay out to get more money. And from what I’ve heard the whole week is extremely long. You’ve got dinners every night — not little dinners, but huge, massive dinners. I know, as players, that’s the last thing we want to do. We want to prepare ourselves. That’s part of the whole thing: you’re just a slave that week. At some point the players might say, “You know what — we’re not doing this anymore, because this is ridiculous.”
Guys might actually refuse to play?
Don’t be surprised if it happens. It’s just not a fun week like it should be. The Presidents Cup is fun. Jack just makes it fun. We had a great time, we really enjoyed each other’s company. From what I’ve heard, the Ryder Cup just isn’t fun. The fun is sucked right out of it. That’s the word I hear a lot.
Speaking of fun, why do you have three flat-screen TVs above your fireplace?
So I can watch three different things. I like to watch as much basketball as I can. I got the idea from J.J. Henry. He had a great little office area in his old house. He had three TVs — they weren’t as big as these — but it was just the perfect setup to have three TVs with three football games going on. Plus, I have this humongous wall, so I figured I had to do something with it.
With the constant traveling, how does a guy like you find a girlfriend?
Truly it’s difficult. It’s not a big concern, though. It’s the last thing I want to worry about. It’s just going to happen. I’m very happy being single and doing whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it, and not have to ask permission to do anything. Golf is still No. 1 to me.