Mahan's shift in mindset brings him big rewards

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April 01, 2012
Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM contributor

HUMBLE, Texas -- Didn't see this coming, did you?

Hunter Mahan isn't too sure he did either.

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The man who has made a career of being too hard on himself, the man who was so distraught he broke down in tears at the 2010 Ryder Cup is suddenly the best American player in the game.

He leads the FedExCup, too, after becoming the first player to win twice on TOUR this year.

Mahan's no stranger to winning, but it's usually been from behind. Or out of a free-for-all on the back nine. Sunday, he stepped up and won the 2012 Shell Houston Open the way you'd expect one of the world's best to finish it off -- with his mind.

"I had to have a lot of patience,'' said Mahan, who edged Carl Pettersson by a shot. "I had to really be present, one shot at a time. Couldn't start thinking too far ahead. There's too many good players up there. . . you know, so it feels nice to kind of to win it with my mind today.''

The same mind which is now on Augusta and the first major of the year.

"I felt like I was playing well coming in here, so whether I won or not wasn't going to deter me from how I felt about Augusta,'' said Mahan, who also jumps to No. 4 in the world.

"The game feels good. I feel very capable of playing great golf, and I feel like I showed myself I don't have to be perfect to win. You know, I felt -- like I said, I felt like this week my mind was probably the strongest part of my game. That's a great thing to feel for sure.

"When you play a major, you're going to have to have all facets of the game, especially your mind has to be a strength. That's what I'm going to take from this week is that my mind was so strong, I was able to kind of persevere through some, you know, having the lead and doing something I haven't done before.''

Mahan, who won the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship earlier this year, started the day two shots behind third-round leader Louis Oosthuizen, but found himself tied for the lead at the turn and in sole possession of it after a birdie at the 10th. Oosthuizen started slow, then handed the lead ato Pettersson after a double bogey at the fifth hole. Mahan's birdie at the ninth put him into a tie, then the birdie at 10, coupled with a Pettersson double, put Mahan in charge.

"I was patient for the first eight holes, but I felt like I had some opportunities and I couldn't get ahold of them,'' Mahan said. "So it felt great to -- I hit a great shot there. We knew we had a perfect club. It's great when the ball does exactly what it's going to do and hit a nice putt and coming into 10 was good, too. It was a good stretch there obviously for me.''

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FedExCup points
Hunter Mahan's second victory of the year took him to No. 1 in the race for the FedExCup. Standings

Followed by a better one -- one punctuated by an exclamation point of a flop shot into No. 16. He'd missed it long and had to drop away from the grandstands.

"I looked at it a couples times, try to figure out what I wanted to do,'' he said. "I knew hitting it high was going to be the best hope. Wasn't any sort of low pitchy shot there. Hitting it high was the most direct route.

"Didn't have to chip it short and hit it in the fringe or rely on any bad bounces. I just had to make sure I was aggressive and committed to it and I was. And as soon as I saw it in the air and took the first hop, I thought it was going to be good, but a tap-in there, you know, was huge."

And on a scale of 1-10?

"It was probably a seven, probably, you know,'' he said. "Hit it that close, you know, like a ten. Felt like a ten to me. I felt I could hit it inside of 5 feet if I hit it right, right where I was looking, and it did.''

Ironically, Mahan thought about skipping the SHO this year and heading to Augusta, where he's had two top 10s in the last three years -- for about a second. Then he thought about the Redstone course and the three top-eight finishes he had in the last five SHOs.

No brainer.

"I kind of really didn't like the idea of spending so much time there before the tournament, and the hardest part of that tournament is Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, because you're just kind of sitting around and kind of seeing the course,'' he said. "You can't wait to get started, really.''

So why not play?

Mahan played the back nine here in 11 under for the week and -- here's a stat -- he's gone 102 holes without a three-putt.

"I'm going the try to keep that up, I guess,'' he said, grinning.

That and his new outlook on his approach to the game.

"I wasn't kind of reaching my potential in a way,'' he said. "I think great players, when you see them, their head is always up. They never seem to get down. They might get upset over a shot, but don't get down on themselves over a shot. It just never seems to bother them.

"You also watch Tiger when he's I guess -- played with him last week. The guy, he's just got that confidence and that swagger back where it's just head up, chest back and ready to go play. You got to be positive in this game. It's too hard. Hitting a good shot might be hitting it 30 feet. You don't have to hit it 2 feet for it to be a good shot.''

That's a far cry from the tears at Celtic Manor. That day he showed the world there is crying in the Ryder Cup. There is emotion.

And Sunday? Ear-to-ear grins.

"It feels great,'' he said. "Shoot, I'd be lying to you if I said I doesn't feel awesome to be ranked No. 4 in the world. That's a pretty surreal thing to think about.

"You know, I felt like I could be a good player in this game, but to win twice this year and be fourth, it feels great, really does. It shows me what I can do, you know, shows me what I'm capable of.''

And it shows the power of the mind.

Mahan said he can't really pinpoint a specific tournament or stretch of tournaments when he decided to lighten up on himself and work on his mental game.

"I think I'm just tired of doing it the wrong way,'' he said, drawing a laugh. "I what I was doing before and it stunk. It wasn't any fun. We play so many holes, play so many tournaments. It just doesn't make sense to beat yourself up, you know, because the game is hard enough.''

Sunday, Mahan's game was on cruise control. A comfort zone on the course. A focus. A realization that, whatever happened, he'd be ok.

"It's too hard to put your happiness on a round of golf,'' he said. "I'm still working on that.''

Just now, as the leader of the FedExCup, a five-time TOUR champ, the top-ranked American in the world, a short-lister at Augusta and a guy with his head held high.

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