Hunter Mahan: A Serious Golfer Thinking Seriously and Keeping His Head Up

Hunter Mahan had one of those great days on a golf course. This one, Glen Abbey, just outside of Toronto, in Oakville, at the RBC Canadian Open. It helped that he shot a 5-under 67 in the first round to be comfortably tucked in T5 going into Friday’s round. But then he did himself a bunch better and shot an 8-under 64 to jump up four places and into a 2-shot lead by himself.

And it was a good thing he did because John Merrick, winner in LA back in February, went to work on his own great round and put together a fabulous, 10-under 62. You should take a look at his scorecard; it was a joke. He eagled the 2nd hole and then waited until the 7th until he started making birdies. 8 of them over those closing 12 holes. 

But in a way, the round was exceptional for another reason: he had a lousy warm-up:

Yeah, it’s weird.  I actually kind of had a really kind of bad warm‑up this morning.  It was strange.  I wasn’t hitting it that great and I didn’t feel that good.  Maybe that makes you focus a little bit more, try to figure out what’s going on, and I was able to kind of work a couple things out and got off to a good start and eagled the second hole, which kind of calmed me down.

Whenever you try to force things in golf you never get what you want to do.  You’ve just got to do the best you can, try hard without trying too hard, and everything kind of clicked.  You can’t force it out here.  I’m just blessed to have a good day today.

So the lesson is, don’t let anything that happens, good or bad, get in the way of just being in the present with the game. What happens in this moment isn’t always a precursor to what happens in the next moment.

Mahan had some similar thoughts, beginning with his overview of his round. I have come to think of him as a serious golfer thinking seriously because of quotes like this:

I kind of built off last week.  I got some good things I’m doing with my swing and everything, and feel good about that, and I’m just going out there and really trying to trust my game and just allow things to happen and not get in the way of myself and be as present as I can and keep my head up and keep moving forward and just kind of letting my abilities and everything that I’m doing in my game, let it try to come out.

One of the interesting things about that last sentence, that long second sentence, is that it is a fully-formed, fully-integrated philosophy about how to do well in the game. It all flows as a complete thought that sits in his mind as he’s playing and allows him to be with the game in a highly productive way.

Which is not to say that he wanders the course as some sort of self-absorbed zombie incapable of having another thought. In fact, he can even talk to other players when he’s out there. Paired with the voluble Billy Horschel for the first time, they had a great time:

I think I play better when I’m talking in between shots and I’m not kind of putting my head down and thinking about maybe the last swing if it wasn’t very good.  I do better when I’m looking forward, head is up, being in the present, talking to my caddie Wood or whoever.

We had a good day out there.  I’ve never played with Billy before.  I’ve just started getting to know him the past few weeks.  He’s a good guy to play with.  It does help, but the more I can kind of keep my head up and not worry about anything behind me, it always works to my favor.

It certainly helped that he really liked the golf course. Perhaps he was channeling the great Gary Player who never met a course that wasn’t his favorite course:

Today was a little bit calmer, which was in our favor obviously.  But the course is in great shape.  Tee to green it’s fantastic.  The greens are rolling pretty true.  If you hit it well out here, par‑5s, you can attack the par‑5s.  It’s a fun golf course to play.

That sort of attitude isn’t incidental or trivial, it’s fundamental to clearing issues from your mind so that you can play in the present with no histrionics. “I hate this course!” just doesn’t work.

What was interesting is that he saw Merrick flashing by out of the corner of his eye, he knew Merrick was flying, but he chose not to pay attention to what he was doing. He paid attention to himself:

Yeah, I saw kind of going into 9, I saw he was at 11, and it was weird because I think he was at 7 or 8 or something, and then he was at 11.  62 is a pretty good round.

But I didn’t really think I had to catch him.  There’s so much golf to be played here.  I think I just wanted to go out there and not try to shoot for a score but just try to play golf.

I knew I was swinging so well and doing everything well, I just wanted to let that happen and not hold on to anything and just play free, and that’s what I did. And that’s how I think I was able to birdie the last three, because I just kind of kept my head up and kept going.

I wasn’t really thinking about finishing strong or anything, I was just trying to finish that hole and stay in the present as much as I could and not get too caught up in the leaderboard or anything else.

On the 14th hole, a dogleg right that plays across a creek, a cell phone went off and he had to back off his tee shot. But he didn’t quite gather himself because he flared the shot out to the right and into the native area on the far bank of the creek. But he saved his par from there and kept his momentum going:

I hoped it wouldn’t stop my momentum if I did make bogey because I wouldn’t be a very good player if it did because it’s just one shot. And I didn’t even make that bad a swing, I just hit it a little bit off the heel but it went right and got a great break.  There’s actually quite a bit of area up there.  If you can find your ball you can hack it out of there, but I got a great break and I was able to hit it way up there.

Gosh, it’s just a sign of golf.  I’m hitting it so great and hadn’t even come close to missing a fairway and then I miss a squirrelly one like that.  You’ve just got to keep your head up and know that each shot is pivotal and the next one is the most important.  You can’t take anything for granted in this game.

Having fun seemed to be key to him, was it more fun to come to Glen Abbey after the difficult week in Muirfield?

It is.  I think they did a good job with the setup here because they could have grown the rough up and made it really difficult, and it’s tough to come back from a major and play the next week, especially when it’s a hard golf course.  It’s really a mental grind. But I think the golf course setup is fantastic because it’s still playable but it’s still difficult and still challenging.

I’m just kind of trying to go out there and play, and like I said, the more I’m relaxed out there and just letting things happen and not grinding away after a missed shot or something like that, being in the past or something, that always helps me.

Just having fun is important because I play my best golf when I’m doing that, and that has nothing to do with score.  My attitude and everything should be — that shouldn’t matter.  How I play shouldn’t really affect who I am and how I treat myself and treat everybody.

I don’t know where he got all this stuff. I’m going to ask him the next time I see him, probably at the Accenture Match Play Championship.

Because these thing’s he’s saying are the keys to the kingdom.

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