Hunter Mahan: In Search of the Swing Feels

Casting about for a good pairing to follow in the third round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, my eye was immediately attracted to Padraig Harrington. Aside from being a completely “affable fellow,” his media interview room sessions are mesmerizing. He just does not know how to give anything but complete answers, each filled with historical overviews, personal anecdotes and a wry sense of humor. And he’s a pretty good golfer to say the least.

My bonus players were Hunter Mahan and Bryce Molder. Because Harrington’s swing is cobbled together by his compulsive changing, I learned that while highly effective, it is a tad idiosyncratic. For example, he has to have the widest stance on any player on the PGA Tour. It does not seem to effect his ability to get the ball around the course or to score, but it is definitely…different. 

But Mahan’s swing stood out. He is another of Sean Foley’s players along with Tiger, Justin Rose and at, one time, Sean O’Hair. He was bombing his driver in beautiful, high arcs and the rest of his tee to green work looked good. But it was that tight swing that was generating all of this that was the show stopper.

And that’s how this post ended up being about Hunter Mahan instead of a second one in a week about Padraig Harrington, however captivating he may be…and he is…a lot.

“I write a daily golf mastery blog called Eye On The Tour.com. I follow the Tour, mostly the PGA Tour, and I comment on what you guys do from a mastery point of view as a former player.”

I was watching you today and I was amazed at how tight your swing looks, how well tooled it looks. How long did it take you to get from where you started with Sean to where you are now?

I don’t know, I guess it’s a work in progress. It feels like it’s not where I want it to be by any means. It’s not — I don’t have the “feels” that I want and I can’t hit some of the shots I want to hit. So, some of it’s natural the way I can move through the ball. And…you know, it’s a work in progress.

That’s really surprising given the way it looks.

I mean it’s not — how it looks and the comfort level of it is always different.

Right, so what’s the gap in terms of…

Well, it’s just keeping the shots tight. Understanding why the ball does what it does and being able to start it — my start lines need to be better. I want to be able to start it left of the hole and work it instead right of the hole. It’s getting better. Like I say, it takes time.

So is it reps? Or is it more lessons?

Yeah, it’s just reps. It’s great to have Foley, but at the very end it’s up to me. I have to experiment and work and figure things our for myself, because I can’t tell him how I feel and what works for me. He can tell me what it looks like, so as great as he is, it comes down to the player putting the time and all these thoughts in.

What in particular are you trying to get freed up in the swing?

Just trying to get consistent with moving the ball right to left and how I need to do that [he wants to play his stock shot left to right, but he needs to be able to move it both ways]. And then from there — I’m understanding it more and getting the feels more and more. So it just takes time. It just takes thought and work to understand why the ball does what it does.

Is a lot of this trying to be swinging to the left through the ball?

No, I’m trying to go way to the right to get it to go left.

Because I saw you working a couple of practice swings on that one that you didn’t quite get through.

Yeah, it’s just feel and comfort. Getting on the course and hitting on the range are two different things. So getting that trust in there and understanding what it takes to hit a good shot.

So at your place in the hierarchy of the pantheon of professional golfers, you still play with a lot of confidence, like you were today.

Yeah, you try to: see the shot, make the swing necessary to hit the shot and let it go from there. You can’t really control anything after you pull the trigger.

How long did it take you to get to that place where you’re just playing to targets, seeing the shots.

Well, you start playing tournaments, you have to do it.

But back to your time in college?

I don’t know. That’s just the way you have to play, is you see it and you pick a club and you hit it. That’s just what you have to do to play.

The last time I talked to you was in Tuscon last year and you were working pretty hard on your short game. How do you feel about that now?

It’s great. It’s going really good. I’ve just gotten a lot better with it and have a better understanding of it and better feel for it.

That one little pitch shot you hit on 17 looked pretty good. [About 90 feet off a tight lie on the upslope of the bank in front of the green. Carried it about 75 feet and checked it up 8 feet from the hole.]

Yeah. So I feel comfortable with it. It’s getting better every day. So that’s just going to take a little time to get the doubt out of it, but the technique is fantastic and it’s been great this week. [It helps immeasurably that the golf course is in immaculate condition. There are only perfect lies.]

Of course you thrilled the fans with that shot you hit out of the hazard on 7. [He blocked his tee shot right on the par 3, onto the cart path and one-hopped it into the adjacent sandy, desert wash. That’s the hole where he was making all of those postmortem swings. He zipped the shot out of oblivion twelve feet beyond the pin and spun it back to five. And made the putt.]

Yeah, it was just a bunker shot basically. I had a great lie.

Was it pretty firm in there? It kind of looked like it?

Yeah. It was perfect. It was actually great. Because I hit it great and it had a ton of spin on it.

I wish you could have seen Padraig’s face. He was standing in the front bunker waiting on you and all of a sudden that thing came out of nowhere, hit and spun back. And he turned back to his caddie with a big, incredulous smile on his face and mouthed the word, “Wow.”

Yeah, I caught it really good.

It was pretty great. Anything else from a mastery point of view that you can think of, how you enable yourself to play well besides the mechanical stuff?

Well, that’s all within the person. There’s no secrets. It’s just going out there and doing it. At some point there’s no secrets, there’s just, you either do it or you don’t.

Right. It’s all experience.

Yup.

Okay. Perfect. Appreciate your time.

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