Commentary

Hunter Mahan tries to find positives

Originally Published: October 19, 2010
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

It will forever remain one of the lasting images from the 2010 Ryder Cup.

Needing a half-point to retain the title for the United States, Hunter Mahan was 2 down with two holes to play in his match against European stalwart Graeme McDowell. Already deflated after hitting his tee shot woefully short on the par-3 17th hole, Mahan duffed a chip, essentially clinching victory for the home team.

[+] EnlargeMahan
Allan Henry/US PresswireHunter Mahan's singles match -- and the 38th Ryder Cup -- were decided on the 17th hole. The pressure, Mahan said, was unlike anything he has ever experienced in golf.

While that directly led to a celebration for the ages on the penultimate green, it would be too simplistic to place sole blame for the U.S. loss on Mahan.

Not that you would have known by looking at him.

Minutes after the competition had concluded, Mahan was inconsolable, as teammates defended him in their post-tournament news conference. He spoke very little that day, but on Tuesday he finally opened up about what the competition meant to him and how he dealt with the aftermath of its result.

Q: We last saw you after the Ryder Cup was over, when the entire United States team was brought into the interview room at Celtic Manor. You were so upset, you could barely speak. What was going through your mind at that time?
A: A lot of things. There were just a lot of emotions, I guess. It's a long week; I was just thinking about everything that happened. Your mind is just racing all week and when it's finally over, you're just kind of spent.

You think about all of the stuff you did that day and what you could have done differently. I thought I was going to be fine, but I got the first question thrown at me and I was trying to think. It was just a lot to take. I wasn't surrounded by it for too long afterward; it was just hard to get a moment to relax and take a few deep breaths. We went straight from losing to going in and changing, then the closing ceremonies, then the interview room. There was just so much going on that I couldn't get away to calm myself down.

Q: You're not usually a very outwardly emotional guy. How did it feel to display your emotions like that in public?
A: That's what the Ryder Cup does. It brings a lot out of you that you maybe didn't have before. It's either win or lose. You know, there's no in between. There's no, "Oh, I played well and finished fifth." It's just so much more definitive. Everybody feels it -- Jim Furyk, Stewart Cink. The European team, how much emotion they have. It just brings something out of you that you don't even realize. It grabs ahold of you because it's different than any other tournament. You're playing with a team and cheering on other guys that you usually play against. It's a whole different animal, but it's one of the most amazing tournaments there is.

Q: Let's rewind a little bit. On Sunday night, did your captain, Corey Pavin, tell you he was putting you in the last singles match? Or did you ask to be placed in that situation?
A: Well, I asked to be first off. I wanted to throw my name out there and say I'd love to be the first out there. I wanted to help get the mo' going on our side. When he said he was going to put me last, I didn't know how to take that. I didn't know if that was good, I didn't know if that was bad. But after thinking about it for a little bit, I was pretty excited about it. I felt like it was going to be a great opportunity, because we've had so much success in singles that it could very easily come down to the last three or four matches. I was excited to be in that position. I was excited to play Graeme. I knew it would be a difficult challenge, because he had played so well the day before, but I knew it was an opportunity for something that could be pretty amazing.

Q: On a course that was yielding plenty of birdies, you never really got it going that day. Was it a case of feeling the pressure, just not having your swing, a balky putter or something else?
A: I just didn't make any putts. I actually hit it really well, especially early. Had a bunch of looks on the front nine to get ahead in the match or at worst be square, but I just couldn't make anything. The way the format was all week, I played alternate shot and I really didn't hit many putts. I was hitting most of the iron shots going into the holes, so I didn't feel like I had the best read on the greens, but I hit a lot of good putts. I mean, I lipped out a ton of putts. I just didn't adjust that well to the greens, didn't hit them firm enough and didn't adjust to what the greens were doing. That was kind of my downfall. That's why I was in the position that I was in, being down pretty much the whole day.

Q: When did you realize that the Ryder Cup was going to come down to that final match between yourself and McDowell?
A: After playing the first four or five holes, it was like, "Oh, this isn't even going to make a difference," but after playing 10, it looked like there was a chance. On 14 and 15, it started getting bigger and bigger. And then when Rickie [Fowler] did his thing [halving his match], we were the only ones out there, so we knew the situation.

Q: After being 3 down with seven to play, you rallied to get the match to 1 down through 15. Did it feel like the momentum had shifted at that point?
A: A little bit. I felt like we got a little mo' after that birdie on 15, it was like, "We've got something here." But we were kind of waiting all week for that big shot, that big putt, something to kind of spur us on. When you win a hole, it's great, but you want a few in a row to get that big surge and I never quite got it. And then when Graeme birdied 16, that hurt. I give credit to him. He played a perfect hole. That was one of our more difficult holes all week, I thought, and he played it perfectly.

Q: I know golfers are taught from a young age to expect that the opponent will always make his putt in match play, but did you see McDowell rolling in that long birdie?
A: He was putting well, but I thought it was a difficult putt. It was downhill, quick, not a putt you really wanted to hit firm and try to make. So I was maybe a little surprised that he made it, but you just kind of move on. It was an excellent putt. I saw the replay. I thought it was low, but it just grabbed that edge.

Q: And then you came to 17. What happened on the tee shot?
A: That whole scenario there, I've never seen anything like it. I've never seen so much energy -- you see it, you feel it. I've never had energy like that against us. It was the coolest thing. You felt that at Valhalla, but this was just crazy. So I felt like I just kind of rushed things a little bit. I needed to give myself a little more time, take some really deep breaths and just kind of calm down. I felt like the whole hole was just kind of quick and I never really got settled.

Q: Your shot came up well short. Were you playing it one less club, thinking you'd hit it longer due to all of the adrenaline?
A: No, I just mishit it. I hit it a little fat. I really wanted to stiff it. I didn't know if he was on the green, but I knew from the reaction that he was right up there, so I figured par wasn't going to do us any good. We needed birdie. But I just got a little stiff with it, didn't quite have the rhythm that I had all day.

Q: What about the ensuing chip?
A: I just kind of rushed that a little bit, too. You feel a little pressure, you get a little stiff. I wasn't really relaxed for the shot.

Q: How many times have you replayed those shots in your head over the past few weeks?
A: Not very much. Not really the last hole or anything like that. I chalk that up to being human. I felt like that was not my demise or the problem; it was just all day. I mean, if you go through the round, I had a short putt on 2, a short putt on 3, a chance on 5, a chance on 6 -- I had chances all day. So I really don't look at that as the big problem.

Q: You've won tournaments. You've contended at major championships. How does the pressure you felt at any of those compare with the pressure you felt that day?
A: There was just more crazy energy. There's always pressure in any tournament you play, but like I said, it's so definitive on one side or the other. When you play a major, there are a ton of guys trying to win. You don't feel like the fans are cheering for anyone; they just want to see good shots. It was nothing I've ever seen or felt before. It's just different. It's hard to describe to someone how it's different from a major, but it is. You've got teammates and wives and captains and fans completely cheering against you. But it was a great feeling. That's what the Ryder Cup is all about. They had a home-field advantage. That's what helped us succeed in '08 and that's what helped them succeed this year.

Q: One of those teammates, Tiger Woods, recently said, "I feel sorry for Hunter. He was put into a tough spot, but he handled it well, and he's going to learn and grow from it." How does it feel to have that kind of support from a teammate? Do you believe that you'll grow from this?
A: Oh, 100 percent. Yeah, I definitely feel like that. Tiger was great in the team room after the round, right after we got inside. Everybody was, really. Stewart was great at the podium; Jim was great. He and I had a moment, because he was in the same position I was back in the 1990s, so we had something in common. I was put in a tough spot, but I was glad to be there. It's one of those things that I'll never, ever forget and I'm glad it happened. It's something that I'll always remember. I'll always be proud that I was there and did a lot of good stuff that day. I didn't feel like I choked by any means or let the moment overcome me. I felt like I was in it all day and I was proud of the way I played.

Q: Have any other notable people -- golfers or otherwise -- contacted you since the Ryder Cup? If so, what have they said?
A: I've talked to a bunch of people, a lot of my friends and people like that. Michael Jordan was there and he texted me after the round. Arn Tellem, who represents a lot of basketball and baseball guys, he got a ton of e-mails from guys like Bret Saberhagen and players like that in all kinds of walks of life. I've only heard encouraging things and I think people just appreciate how much I cared and how much I wanted it for myself, my team and my country. I gave it my all. The emotion I showed afterward was slightly embarrassing at the time, but I think people appreciated it, because they know how much we put into it.

Q: How about McDowell? He said something to you when he shook your hand after the match. What did he say?
A: He just said, "Great playing. Great effort out there. It was a pleasure." I kind of said the same. We saw each other hours later in the team room. I've known Graeme since college and he's a heck of a good guy.

Q: You took a vacation after the Ryder Cup. It sounds like a tagline from one of those airline ads: "Wanna get away?" But really, how much did you need to get away from the game for a few weeks and decompress?
A: Oh, yeah. I definitely needed to get away from the game, not just from the Ryder Cup, but from playing so much golf -- we had the FedEx Cup and then the Ryder Cup. I needed to get away in a big way.

Q: Going forward, can this experience actually be beneficial to your career?
A: No question. I have no doubt that maybe being in another Ryder Cup I'll experience that, but there's no way I'm going to feel what I felt that day on those last couple of holes. There's just no way. Even contending at majors and having a chance to win, I know I can take something from this experience and use it there. I felt honored to be in that scenario. Even though things didn't go my way, it was an honor to play in the Ryder Cup and have that opportunity. It was awesome.

Q: Bernhard Langer, who suffered through a similar fate in 1991, said you should "hold your head high" and predicts big things for you in the future. Is it comforting to hear those words?
A: Oh, for sure. You know, Bernhard had a putt. He was in a much more high-pressure situation than I was in. I mean, he had a putt to win it. I had a lot of work to do.

Q: You know, within two years of missing that knee-knocker at Kiawah, he had won his second Masters title. Maybe a little more reason for optimism?
A: Yeah, absolutely. I take from the Ryder Cup that I did a lot of good things, but I still need to work on some stuff. I'm going to continue to work on those things and move on. Like I said, the pressure I felt there and the energy and excitement and adrenaline and everything -- I feel like I'll handle that a lot better next time.

Whether that's a major or the Ryder Cup, I'm definitely going to feel more comfortable after going through what I went through. You know, we are competitors, we are individuals, but we know what each person goes through. When we go and play tournaments, we're not cheering for anyone to do badly, because we're worried about ourselves and how we're going to handle the situation. But that shows you what kind of sport we have, when guys are so positive in defense of me and encouraging me.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.