Hunter Mahan Column: Hunter Mahan can wow other pros but can't win big on the PGA Tour - yet

PARAMUS, N.J. - It's hard to awe the top players on the PGA Tour with golf shots. They've seen it all, the best of the best can do it all, and if your name's not Tiger Woods you're not reinventing the wheel out here.

Wowing a PGA Tour star is like trying to leave Usain Bolt breathless over your foot race. Or make "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis go slack jawed at the sight of your amateur videos.

Sorry dude, but it's just not happening.

Unless you're Hunter Mahan. Unless you're throwing up a 9-under 62 on a classic A.W. Tillinghast golf course that doesn't yield anything lower than a 66 to anyone else. Mahan's first round at The Barclays, the tournament that kicks off the crazy cash-grab FedEx Cup, is the stuff that makes the cynics in the Tour locker room take notice.

None other than Phil Mickelson - still the alleged No. 2 player in the world - all but tossed up his hands in surrender.

"I thought it was hard to make birdies out there," Mickelson said after his own 1-under 70 in the same morning conditions that Mahan played in. "But Hunter obviously didn't think so."

Mahan threw so many red numbers at venerable Ridgewood Country Club that you could be forgiven for thinking he'd sneaked off and played his round on the nearby pushover Bergen Community College course instead. Mahan went ... well, Mahan.

This is what Hunter Mahan does. The 26-year-old already has 12 rounds of 64 or lower in his PGA Tour career, including five 62s now. If you're placing bets on the current pro with the best chance to shoot a 59, you'd get more Tour players picking Mahan over Woods than you'd think.

That's how crazy good Hunter Mahan can be on his best days.

"Every now and then, he'll put up a score that makes you squint at the leaderboard a little," Padraig Harrington said.

Then, Mahan will usually disappear faster than the sun in an Alaskan winter. He shot a 62 in last year's Barclays too, on a different course, and faded to a tie for 17th after a final-round 76. Hunter Mahan is one of the most confounding players on a Tour full of question marks.

Everyone knows him now because he managed to compare the Ryder Cup week to being a slave. But while Mahan apologized to every PGA of America suit he could for that and probably a few offended grandmothers he sought out too, he also needs to say sorry to himself for not taking better advantage of his golf opportunities.

This mid and late summer without Tiger stood out as a great chance for new names in golf to emerge, to take a place in the general sports fan's consciousness. Instead, a host of young players with potential embraced it about as well as John McCain is down with that crazy Internet fad.

J.B. Holmes keeps supplementing his booming bombs with the mental resolve of your average trust-fund baby - see his lame one-foot shot from the pines with the lead in the final round of the PGA Championship, and his collapse with a big lead over Tiger in the first round of the World Match Play. Sean O'Hair is still focused on avoiding the daddy shadow. Brandt Snedeker won over fans with his Masters' crying and then forgot how to win. Anthony Kim teases with two wins, but is fading in more big events.

So when Hunter Mahan hits a beautiful approach shot that drops onto the 18th green like a hammer falling from the sky, three feet from another birdie, the old guy clutching a pairings sheet can be excused for calling out to the kid lugging around the Mahan group's scoring placard, "Who hit that shot?"

Hunter Mahan needs momentum from magic

In his tinted sunglasses and standard issue department store khakis, Mahan looks like a cell phone salesman this day. If he wasn't working such magic with his irons, he's a guy you'd expect to see calling passersby over to one of those mall kiosks.

You can see how people would overlook Hunter Mahan. He doesn't exactly dominate a room when he strolls in. Instead, this tour loner - Mahan's never hitting the clubs with an Anthony Kim-style fun times entourage - is the golf nerd of golf nerds in a profession that naturally breeds them. He collects vintage cars and works on his sweet swing.

Mahan is about the last guy you'd expect to go off on anything - let alone unleash a blast on the Ryder Cup Matches that referenced slavery.

How Mahan reacted afterwards was more predictable. And it might have shown his own big-success mental block. In the first major event he played since the comments, with everyone suddenly wanting to talk to him, Mahan posted an 81 in the first round of the PGA Championship.

That's the highest score Mr. 62 has ever shot as a pro.

"It was a pretty tough week," Mahan said, having one lone career win to show for all those 62s. "You learn from your mistakes. It wasn't an easy week and the golf course was hard too, so it was double hard."

It's exactly the type of time when Hunter Mahan needs to find a way to produce his best swings though. No one plays better easy golf than Hunter Mahan - besides perhaps, the PGA Tour's wimp of wimps, skip master Kenny Perry. No one fires daggers at the pins quite like Mahan when everything is humming for him.

"I thought I played well today," Mickelson said. "But my 1-under doesn't look as good as I thought it would with Hunter having such a great round."

Mickelson shook his head.

That's Hunter Mahan. He wows the guys who cannot be wowed. Then, he kills himself.

This weekend would be a good time to change all that.

August 22, 2008

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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