Pulling for the Underdog

Pulling for the Underdog

Hunter Mahan shot the lowest round at Westchester in 25 years.
Ed Betz/AP

HARRISON, N.Y. — Hunter Mahan is going to win the FedEx Cup. At least, I hope he does.

Mahan is exactly the kind of winner the Cup needs. He’s a young stud on the make, still trying to figure out how good he is, and how good he can be. After his macho 62 today at Westchester Country Club he is in great position to win the Barclays, as he lurks in a tie for third place, two back of leader Steve Stricker, who has a history of coming up short on Sundays.

Whatever happens during the final round, if Mahan can take the Cup over the next three-plus weeks, it will confirm the arrival of a new star and validate the larger meaning of these so-called playoffs.

The suits in Ponte Vedra Beach surely would like Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson to be the inaugural champ, because of their higher profiles, but I’m pulling for the underdog.

The Warriors have to beat the Mavs once in a while or what’s the point, right? All of the Tour’s statistical models have shown that only the top 15 after the points reshuffle have a legitimate chance to take the overall championship. Guess who came into this week at 15th? Mahan.

A lot of the focus of these playoffs is money, and that’s another reason to root for Mahan. For Tiger and Phil, a $10 million annuity is like finding loose change wedged between the cushions of the couch. Mahan, a 25-year-old bachelor in his fourth full year on Tour, came into this year with $2.6 million in career earnings. Give him the ten mill and he can stop saving for retirement and spend every dollar he makes the rest of his career on fast cars and faster women. Let’s hope so, anyway.

In truth, Mahan is too focused on getting better to let anything distract him. In the last year he has retooled his powerful swing and remade his mental approach, and it has all come together this summer for the two-time All-American at Oklahoma St. Since June, Mahan has been the hottest player in golf this side of Tiger Woods, and as every week goes by it looks less like a fluky, torrid tear and more like this is baseline of his ability.

“I think some guys get on a hot streak and then they just kind of go away,” Mahan said following the third round. “I don’t think there’s any reason for that. Look at all the top players, they just keep playing good. They are not on a hot streak, they are that good. I feel like my game is capable of stuff like that, so I’m just trying to do it.”

Mahan’s 62 was the third one he’s shot in the last three months, a breakthrough stretch during which he’s won his first Tour event, at Hartford, and enjoyed three other top-10s, including a T6 at the British Open, which backed up a solid 13th at the U.S. Open.

Jack Nicklaus has been so impressed by his development he made Mahan a captain’s selection for the upcoming President’s Cup. That’s a strong validation, but winning the FedEx Cup would be even more meaningful. Mahan is trying his best to downplay the cresting expectations. His heavy-lidded visage gives him the air of a guy who just woke up from a nap, and he got some laughs by playing dumb in the press room, saying, “It’s hard to think about what (the FedEx Cup) is and how it’s changing the game and everything. We are all figuring it out. It’s a lot to think about for four weeks.”

Don’t be fooled — Mahan knows what’s at stake. The final round of the Barclays is the first day of the rest of his career.

Here’s hoping he makes it count.