- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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As a junior golfer, Hunter Mahan was a three-time AJGA All-America selection and Player of the Year in 1999.
As a collegian, Mahan won or shared three awards as the country's top player and finished runner-up at the 2002 U.S. Amateur.
As a professional, he graduated via PGA Tour Q-school in his first opportunity and has never looked back, earning his initial victory at last year's Travelers Championship while finishing a career-best 16th on the money list.
On Monday, in between a T-12 result at the Wachovia Championship and his third career appearance at the Players, Mahan, 25, made a quick stop at media day for the Travelers, where we put him on the ESPN.com Hot Seat to discuss that first pro title, this week's festivities at TPC Sawgrass and a friend that was left behind at the Presidents Cup.
Q: How would you describe your personality?
A: Focused on just trying to be me. Kind of laid-back, but still have a drive to be great at what I'm doing.
Q: Does that change inside the ropes? You looked pretty fired up when you were winning the Travelers last year.
A: Yeah, I was focused but trying to stay calm out there, stay within the moment and not get ahead of myself at all. Just stay right there where I was and not worry about anything else.
Q: How important was it for you to claim that first PGA Tour title?
A: Every player wants to win and to win here was very special. To be a really great player in this game, you have to win; you have to win a lot. To get that first one, to get that good feeling in me, that was definitely big.
Q: Is it more difficult to win the first one or the second one?
A: I think they're all difficult. Until I win a second one, I can't really say but I don't see it being any easier than the first one.
Q: You've made a habit of winning on pretty much every level.
A: Yeah, I've had a nice ladder in my career. I've been able to win on each level, and that's always given me the confidence of knowing what I'm doing and letting things come to me and being patient with myself and just try to go out there and get better, not worrying about anybody but me.
Q: Was there a sense of frustration in that it took three and a half years to find the winner's circle?
A: Yes and no, because I knew I could win, but I wasn't doing the right things to win. It wasn't really surprising that I wasn't winning because I wasn't doing the right things. But it is satisfying to finally win and get it over with.
Q: Jack Nicklaus named you as one of two captain's picks during last year's Presidents Cup. Tell me about how you found out.
A: He called me Sunday night after the PGA. I knew he was calling, I knew he had to make the selections pretty soon.
Q: What's it like getting that kind of phone call from Jack Nicklaus?
A: Oh, it was honestly incredible. He's not going to do much more stuff in golf, really, so to be a part of that team, to get a phone call from him will be something I will always remember. It was a great moment in my life.
Q: How would you describe the experience of playing on the team?
A: It was amazing. You really saw those guys for just being guys -- and nothing more. Obviously, great players, but just hanging out with a bunch of fun guys all week.
Q: Give me a good story about hanging out with Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson] and those guys.
A: Obviously, pingpong is highly competitive among the group. If we weren't hitting balls, we were playing pingpong, so that was fun.
Q: How did your game rank out of the 12 guys on the team?
A: It's all right. I was really overwhelmed by how serious and how good some of the guys were, but it's great. Just seeing guys for who they are and not what they do was the best part.
Q: Did you feel more pressure during that event or an individual tournament when you're in contention?
A: For my first time there, I felt a lot of pressure. But it was more pressure I put on myself than anything else. It's just pressure of a different kind. I was trying so hard to play well that week and hit every shot stiff. I think I overdid it a little bit, so I learned a lot about that, but it was definitely a lot of fun.
Q: Tell me about the present that some of the other players' wives bought you that week.
A: Well, I was there by myself, so this actually came from Barbara Nicklaus. They were going to get an inflatable doll, but luckily they just got a miniature one. They named her Monique, so that was pretty much the running joke the whole week. They always asked me where Monique was and why I didn't bring her around everywhere, so that was OK, I guess. It was fine.
Q: What happened to her? I heard you two had a pretty bad breakup before the week was over.
A: I told them they should just keep it and if anyone else ever comes stag, she would be in the stable. If anyone needs a date, there's Monique.
Q: Is she still around?
A: I don't know where she is. We've lost contact.
Q: Where does making the U.S. Ryder Cup team rank on your list of goals for the year?
A: It's right up there. It's No. 2, other than trying to win again. To see the U.S. getting beaten up in the last few has been tough to watch because I'm proud to be an American, I have a lot of pride. It's tough to see, especially when you know you're just as good or better than the other guys; they're just beating you somehow. It would be great to be a part of that and to change the tide.
Q: In the past 12 months or so, it seems like we've gone from asking, "Where are all the great, young American golfers?" to watching a different U.S.-born 20-something contend every week. What happened?
A: Yeah, the great, young American golfer, people aren't looking at the right things. There aren't too many Tigers and Phils. Most great players take time to develop. Anthony Kim just won last week and he's the youngest to win in a long time. They're out there; there are plenty of us good players. It's just that there are a lot more international players now than there has been, so they're coming over and you're not seeing as many young American players. But for all of the young players in the world, I'll take our crop over any country's, any day.
Q: Want to take a guess at how many Americans under 30 are currently ranked in the PGA Tour's top 70?
A: I would say five or six.
A: Sixteen? There you go.
Q: I can give you the list. Anthony Kim, Brandt Snedeker, Charles Howell III, J.B. Holmes, Sean O'Hair, Johnson Wagner, Jeff Quinney, Ryan Moore, John Mallinger, John Merrick, D.J. Trahan, Troy Matteson, Nick Watney, Nicholas Thompson, Steve Marino and yourself.
A: Yeah, they're all there. I don't know what people are looking for, but if they just want to see the next Tiger, it's not going to happen.
Q: Is there a certain amount of camaraderie among all of the younger players who kind of came through the ranks together?
A: I think so, yeah. A lot of them spent a couple of years on the Nationwide Tour, college golf together, stuff like that, so I think we've seen each other for a long time, sure.
Q: Since this is the Hot Seat, I've got to ask you: Which of those players mentioned has the brightest future ahead of him?
A: Besides myself?
Q: You can name yourself, if you want.
A: I think I've got a pretty good future ahead of me.
Q: OK, and besides yourself?
A: It's hard not to like Charles Howell. I think he's got a lot of talent, he can do just about anything he wants to do. Snedeker has a lot of creativity. I like the way his mind works, he doesn't get too into technique; he just knows how to play golf really well. And obviously, Anthony's got all the confidence in the world and is a good player and knows how good he is. Sometimes that's hard to find.
Q: I didn't think a Cowboy was allowed to say anything good about a Sooner.
A: Well, there's very little Sooner in him, so it's OK.
Q: You have two top-10s and three other top-25s in 13 starts this season. Are you happy with how things have progressed or disappointed that you haven't contended more often?
A: Both. I'm disappointed I haven't contended, but I'm happy in a lot of respects about where my game is. I felt like I was right there at Bay Hill. I felt like if I had just gotten off to a better start at the Mercedes, I could have definitely been up there, too. It's not easy to find that balance of trying to get better and still play well each week. I do like where I am. This is easily the best third of the season I've ever had to start the year, so I'm excited about that and I'm excited about where my game is right now. It's definitely on the way up.
Q: Looking at the stats, your driving accuracy (68.47 percent) is virtually the same as last year, but you've lost 15 yards of driving distance (from 296.7 to 281.6). Is there something you're doing differently or is that just a statistical anomaly?
A: Statistical anomaly, as far as I'm concerned. I don't know, I had a driver in the early part of the year that I was hitting crooked and losing some distance, but I finally started hitting some fairways, so I think the distance will be back.
Q: Did you even know you were 15 yards shorter?
A: No. This year I went to a new driver, but it wasn't the right one for me. I switched for the last couple of tournaments, so I don't know.
Q: You've already finished in the top 30 in every major championship with pretty limited opportunities so far. Which of the four best suits your game?
A: I like the British. I like them all. I've had pretty good finishes in most of them, so I feel like I can play well in any of them. The British is great just because it's so creative and it frees up my mind pretty well. The other ones I try to play too well; at the British, I just try to get the ball in the hole as fast as I can.
Q: Let's talk about a non-major: this week's Players Championship. After the big four, is this the most important event on your schedule?
A: I think so, yeah. Great field, really good golf course, tough, and whoever plays the best is going to win. You can't really fake your way around it. You have to play well in every facet of your game. It's a true test.
Q: Did last year's move to May help to improve the event?
A: I don't know. I mean, maybe. I think it will allow them to change the course setup, allow a little more time for the grass to grow, get a little more heat in there, so it will hopefully allow them to make the course a little bit harder and faster, which will be great.
Q: And lastly, it's time for a bold prediction. You're fresh off a T-12 at the Wachovia. Should we expect big things this week at TPC Sawgrass?
A: I like the golf course. I feel like my game is in pretty good shape. I feel like I can play well there. I just want to give myself a chance on Sunday.
Q: Don't want to guarantee a win, huh?
A: I can't do that. As much as I'd like to, I don't have a crystal ball in front of me.
Q: Fair enough. Hunter Mahan, you are off the ESPN.com Hot Seat.
Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
Hunter Mahan sat down on the Hot Seat to discuss his first career title, frustrations along the way and playing pingpong with Tiger Woods.