Hunter Mahan: On coaches, cross country golf, goal setting, dulling routine, managing fatigue and conditioning

The Hyundai Tournament of Champions kicks off the post-holiday schedule of the PGA Tour on Friday. They’re playing it on the Plantation course at the Kapalua Resort on Maui, Hawaii. It’s a winners-only tournament with just 34 players in the field this year. It runs through Monday so that players going on to the Sony Open in Honolulu, the first full-field event of the new year, can reposition and get to work in a timely manner.

Hunter Mahan was in the interview room and the questions turned to how self-sufficient he was with his game: 

I’ve been lucky to be around a lot of great teachers.  I’ve had Randy Smith, and I had Tom Sargent, who was a pretty good teacher locally in Southern California.  I had Sean Foley.

I’ve had a lot of really incredible people, and they can give — they can see things as much as they want, and we talk about stuff.  I mean communication is so important because, you know, we have a vision for what I want to swing and how I want to look, but if I don’t put the time in, I don’t put the work in and strive for that, it just doesn’t do much good.

That being said, it’s Mahan who has to allow this shaping of his swing to rise in his awareness until it becomes a thoughtless, physical response to any swing he has to make:

And you know, so much of what we do is we go on the golf course, we go on the range, and we have to figure a lot of things out.

I think we know what we were trying to do, and teachers kind of help you and give you keys to get better at certain things, but if you don’t put the work in and put the right work in, really focusing on each shot and not just getting out there and swinging, you know, it’s not going to do much good no matter who your teacher is.

What followed was a first in my experience. A fun conversation began about cross country golf on the Plantation course that wouldn’t make any sense unless you knew the course and the holes. But they were speculating on playing from the 17th tee to the 1st green; the 16th tee cutting across 17; the 5th tee to the 6th green and so on. And he said he was up for it.

And then an interesting response to a question about whether he set goals. He did, but they are unusual:

Yeah.  It’s funny, I thought about that and people ask me goals or something, and I guess I do, but I think — I got performance goals or whatnot, but I’m trying to set different goals, you know, goals that aren’t so performance oriented, things that are more, you know, day‑to‑day things.

You know, just kind of, you know, kind of smile more and be home more and use my phone less and little things like that, you know.  Sometimes goals are so big that they’re, you know, more daunting than they are anything else.

And you get little things that just make each day kind of better that will kind of help your days out better and be more fun and relaxed, I think those are the things that I think I want to do this year more than any other year.

He went on to say that he’s doing okay with his phone goal, wanting to be more “available” to the world rather than being chronically ensconced in the digital world.

Doing okay with that.  It’s hard sometimes.  But yeah, to be more present, you know, on the golf course, at home, with the kids, family, stuff like that, I think is always a good thing.  Phone is sometimes more of a distraction.

And then a question took him into an introspective overview of the less glamorous part of what it means to be a Tour pro who really works at it:

I think we all — I think, you know, I remember talking to another player about this.  You get out here so long and you get out here and you play, you get in such a weekly routine that, for me, I lose feel for it.

I’m just like a robot going from thing to thing, going from the gym to the course and play, practicing, then back to the gym or back to — you know, you become so routine.  Your life becomes just a big routine and it’s like you got no say in it, you got no fun sometimes that, you know, you can just kind of — I feel bogged down sometimes, and you lose the joy of just playing golf and playing a round or hitting a shot, put too much on things.

You know, you put too much on that day into your happiness, and it can melt into your home life, and it just doesn’t — it’s not going to make you a good — you’re not going to like yourself as much as you want to and you’re not going to play as much fun golf and enjoy what you do.

I think I just want to make sure every day is a day of going out there and doing the best I can and getting better playing golf and the next day is a whole new day and it has nothing to do with the day before.  It’s just a brand new day to go out there and get better, and sometimes maybe that may not be going to the course or it may be switching focuses to being less time on the golf course or going home and relaxing a little more because that might help my golf and not being afraid of doing anything like that.

Before I was afraid not to practice or play and be so, you know, intense when I don’t need to be.  Just being — you know, doing whatever I can to be as relaxed as I can every time I go out there and play golf.

I followed him in one or two of his matches when he won the 2012 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson. It was inconceivable to me that he would ever miss a shot again. And there was no evidence that any of this discontent was going on in the background. But he has managed to find more balance in how he approaches being ready to play:

I remember playing Frys this year and I was just tired and coming off the end of the year and everything, and I just knew that I couldn’t waste too much time hitting balls, practicing, spending — I mean I got to the range half hour or so before I played and go hit a few putts and go to the range and hit balls and just played that week because I knew I didn’t have that much energy.

And that awareness paid huge dividends.  I played great that week (T3) and spent less time at the golf course than any other tournament I’ve ever played.  So sitting out there hitting balls for four hours a day doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have success.  You know, it’s a balance.  You gotta figure that out.

But in all of this he has come to see that taking care of his body is one thing he can never take for granted. This conversation began with his wish for 20 more yards:

Well, I’d like to add 20 yards if I could, but it’s going to be pretty tough.  I want to get better at irons.  I want to have a better short game and be a more consistent putter and do things like that.  But I think which Foley is so good, we want to make the golf swing last.

I want to be able to play this game a long time without injuries, without my swing affecting me in a negative way.  I want to be able to be free with it and, you know, I want to play golf as long as I can at a high level.

And a lot of that has to do with I think what I’m adding is trying to be the best shape I can be in.  You know, once you hit — there’s no doubt, once you hit 30, 35, things just — you know, your body just changes.  You just — you need more rest and you need to, you know, working out becomes even more important than ever before, and I see a lot of guys at 40 or so who haven’t done too much.

You know, bodies start breaking down and it happens quick.  You know, you’re great and all of a sudden you see guys in the work out trailer and they’re getting worked on every day because they’re in pain.

Golf is not — the travel and the beating of the balls and the swing is not great for your body, so you gotta take care of it.

With his awareness and the surrounding evidence of the issue, it seems certain that he will.

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