Hunter Mahan: "Tiger’s just one of the team"October, 2011
The two-time Ryder Cup star on the success of Valhalla
THE omens were good. Hunter Mahan’s only previous encounter with the Ryder Cup was as a spectator at Brookline, the last time the Americans had managed to lift the trophy back in 1999.
For years Mahan had looked like a Ryder Cup star in the making. In 2002 he helped his country, along with Ricky Barnes and DJ Trahan, to success in the game’s leading amateur team championship, the Eisenhower Trophy.
The same year he reached the final of the US Amateur Championship, where he lost to Barnes, then considered a precocious talent. He finished 2003 as the number one ranked amateur in the game.
A Presidents Cup debut came courtesy of a wild card pick from Jack Nicklaus – but then many believed he had put the kibosh on a Ryder Cup debut when he complained in an interview about, among other things, the lack of fun and money in the competition.
He quickly tried to make amends.
“I should have said in the article how much I want to change the culture of the Ryder Cup and start winning,” reflects Mahan.
Thanks to Paul Azinger he got his chance two years ago at Valhalla.
“I didn’t feel under too much additional pressure. I felt like I had made the team and I couldn’t do too much about how that had happened,” he tells NCG.
“I learned a lot about myself and how to play team golf in the Presidents Cup and I had to just go out and play and try with every swing.”
Mahan was given the nod along with fellow rookies Steve Stricker and JB Holmes, as well as Chad Campbell who had won just one match in six previous attempts.
At the time they, and his assistant captains Ray Floyd, Olin Browne and Dave Stockton, appeared like a curious bunch – but Captain Azinger had a masterplan.
Having watched a documentary, the skipper borrowed a strategy from the Navy SEALS (Sea, Air and Land) which involved improving team building by breaking them into small groups or pods.
“When Paul was picking the team he didn’t want four guys that would go in one pod, he wanted the four best players as picks but that they would work well with the pod system that he had in place,” explains Mahan. “He gave the choices of who they wanted to play with.”
Mahan’s pod also included Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim and Justin Leonard, with Floyd overseeing the quartet.
“We are all similar, we make a lot of birdies, are aggressive and tough competitors,” says Mahan.
“It was more complex than that but that’s sort of how it worked. We played a lot together, hit each other’s ball and got used to one another so when we went out and played it wasn’t like it was someone new and was real easy.
“Take the foursomes, we play it in the Presidents Cup and that is about it. We never play it apart from that and the Ryder Cup. So the practice rounds were crucial, in terms of getting used to the timing of everything.
“It’s a lot slower and you might not hit an iron for a few holes so it is trying to work out what’s best for the team in terms of who is going to hit into what hole so when you did play it, it is all a bit more familiar.”
You have to relax, you have to. You want to let it out and you want to get really excited but you have to find a way to get away and relax and just try to breath. Floyd’s foursome gelled beautifully. On the first day they combined to post three and a half out of a possible four points with Mahan and Leonard winning both their matches.
“The first day was a dream, we were down early and trying to figure each other out and then we got the ball running and played great. To beat Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey and then Sergio Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez was a really big match as Sergio is almost unbeatable in team matches.”
Back in the day Mahan used to be particularly hard on himself, his ball-striking was great but his outlook wasn’t quite so impressive. A talking to, aided by some colourful language, from his mental coach Neale Smith did the trick.
In short Smith got Mahan to give a little fist pump and say something positive following a good shot and simply not to react to a bad one.
“I tried to learn from my first Major about how frustrated I got if things weren’t going well and I knew I couldn’t get frustrated at all at the Ryder Cup, I had a partner and we were both going to hit bad shots, we were all going to hit bad shots and it was just about being patient.
“You have to relax, you have to. You want to let it out and you want to get really excited but you have to find a way to get away and relax and just try to breath and that’s what we did in the team room. We would play ping pong, watch tv or just do something completely different to get away from it a little bit.”
On the course there was very little getting away from it. Another part of Azinger’s plan was to rest his players at some point but a half alongside Leonard followed by a further one, this time with Mickelson, meant Mahan and the left-hander were the only Americans to play in all five matches. Of the Europeans only Ian Poulter managed it.
“Paul looked at the stats of the last one and he didn’t want to do that but I was playing good. It was tough, it was definitely tough, they were long days and you put so much energy and mental energy into it and you are drained at the end of it.
“Paul would talk to me after the morning round and would then tell me I was going again. Part of me was like, put Justin in, you don’t want to say that as you want to be out there and you don’t want to hurt your team but, once you get out there, you get a second wind and you are ready to go. When you get off the course you can’t believe how drained you are.”
Azinger’s original plan was to have the Floyd axis out last in the singles but it was juggled around to send the in-form quartet out first in an attempt to add quickly to the overnight two-point lead. Mahan, courtesy of a 50-footer at the penultimate hole to halve with Casey, and Kim did their bit but it was the ‘redneck’ pod of Kenny Perry, Boo Weekley, Jim Furyk and Holmes who did the real damage on the Sunday with all four contributing a full point.
This year it seems likely that the United States will have their best player back in the ranks. Plenty was made of the Americans finally winning, despite, or helped by, the absence of Tiger Woods, but Mahan believes he would only bolster the visitors’ efforts at Celtic Manor.
“I think it’s more of a media thing, he is the scapegoat when we lose, as he’s the best player in the world, which he is, but he can only do so much. He’s not the captain but, like Mickelson, is very underrated for his leadership, as is Jim Furyk.
“Tiger is more quiet about it, at the first Presidents Cup he quickly talked to me about being one of the first guys out there and getting some momentum for our side. He doesn’t make any big speeches and likes just being another part of the team, I know he doesn’t like people thinking he’s not good for the Ryder Cup.”
The final word goes to Azinger, the brains behind the brilliance of two years ago.
“We were just excited and proud to play for him, we didn’t feel nervous and didn’t feel like there was extra pressure on us as he did all the work for us.
“There was no guesswork in what we were doing, we knew who we were going to play with, there was no question about strategy and who was going to play with who, it was all done, it felt like zero pressure.”