Mahan gives U.S. golf more hope for the future

6/24/2007 - Golf

CROMWELL, Conn. -- Forget "American Idol." According to the good folks at Nielsen, the most-watched television show last week was something called, "America's Got Talent," which -- surprise, surprise -- doesn't air on Golf Channel. As golf becomes more global and players from so many different nations find success on the PGA Tour, some top U.S. players have suffered fractured egos and bruised reps, with the state of American golf supposedly in greater decline than our collective taste in TV programs.

This is the same country that saw its national championship claimed not by ripped, chiseled Tiger Woods nor steady, sturdy Jim Furyk one week ago. Instead, it was overweight, chain-smoking Angel Cabrera from Argentina who won the U.S. Open, giving the American contingent a big fat oh-fer at the tournament four years running.

Fear not, partisan patriots. The world's top three players remain red, white and true blue, with Woods, Phil Mickelson and Furyk atop the rankings. Then there's Zach Johnson, who won the Masters in April. And don't forget Charles Howell III and Nick Watney, both up-and-comers of the under-30 variety who have earned titles this season.

Well, enter Hunter Mahan as the latest example for why the future of American golf is hardly as dire as some would lead us to believe. The 25-year-old sandy blond Californian struck another blow for the U.S. when he stole the lead, lost it, shared it late and eventually earned his first career PGA Tour victory at the Travelers Championship on Sunday.

Mahan entered the day 1 stroke behind third-round leader Jay Williamson, but quickly found himself atop the leaderboard when his playing partner made bogey on the first hole and he countered with birdie on the third. He led throughout the round until a three-putt bogey on 16 and another on 17 -- the product of a skulled iron from a fairway bunker -- left Mahan standing on the final tee 1 shot behind.

But 18 proved to be his lucky number. After Williamson missed an 11-foot birdie putt that would have sealed his own initial tour title, Mahan drilled a 7-footer to force a playoff. Playing the 18th hole again, Mahan stuck his approach shot to 2 feet, then followed another wayward Williamson birdie opportunity by tapping in for victory.

America's got talent, indeed.

"The fact that I know I won out here means a lot," said Mahan, who shot a final-round 5-under 65. "I mean, it's just knowing that you can win and actually winning is two different things. And to win it the way I did is just amazing to me. To have to birdie in a playoff, especially after he hit that shot in there, is mind-boggling."

Although it's tough to say this has been a long time coming for a player in just his fourth full PGA Tour season, it was only a matter of time before Mahan turned his talents into hardware on the major league level.

If the Travelers win was a storybook ending, Mahan's amateur career was something from a fairy tale. Before turning professional in 2003, he (deep breath now) was the 1999 American Junior Golf Association Player of the Year, won the '99 U.S. Junior Amateur, earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors at Southern Cal, transferred to Oklahoma State where he finished third at the '03 NCAA Championships and was runner-up at the '03 U.S. Amateur.

In his rookie year on tour, Mahan lost in a four-man playoff at the Reno-Tahoe Open. It took two years for his next second-place finish, losing by 5 strokes to J.J. Henry here in Connecticut a year ago. But this season has brought bigger challenges for Mahan. Entering this week, he had made the cut in only nine of 17 starts, with just one top-10.

"After you play out here for a little bit, you realize this is hard," Mahan said. "Being a professional golfer, it's not easy to win out here. There's a lot of great players that haven't won yet. You definitely think you're good enough to win. I thought I was. But you just never know what's going to happen. You're going to need to play great and you're going to need a little bit of luck, too. It's not easy."

So what's next for the newest first-time PGA Tour champion? Only time will tell, of course, but there's no reason to think Mahan won't be golf's next American idol, parlaying a propensity for driving the ball long and straight into more top finishes in the future. Any doubts about his skill level were erased with those two stiffed iron shots on 18, each one the stuff of a champion who has earned the right to see his name posted among some of the better U.S. players around.

Only in America.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.