Chip no longer defines Hunter Mahan

2/26/2012 - Golf Rory McIlroy Hunter Mahan + more

MARANA, Ariz. -- Hunter Mahan's chipping has been at the forefront of his mind since his infamous flubbed chip shot at the 17th hole during the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales. Though he had won three times, including the 2010 WGC Bridgestone Invitational, and was one of the best young 20-somethings in golf, his name had become synonymous with that moment. He would break down in tears at the team's news conference after those matches. It was all too much to handle for the Dallas resident. Golf meant too much to him.

"If I wanted to be the player that I felt like I could be, I was going to have to change," Mahan said after capturing the WGC-Accenture Match Play in a 2 and 1 win over Rory McIlroy. "I had to take it easy on myself, basically not try so hard.

"I didn't want to have my identity stuck with my golf score. They needed to be separated, and I needed to play golf because I enjoyed it and accept the result and move on and not get attached to it."

With an already beautiful long game, he set out to become a good chipper with his coach, Sean Foley. But it wasn't an easy fix. Mahan had become successful on the PGA Tour by being one of the best drivers of the golf ball in the world. For years he had taken for granted this weakness in his game. The debacle in Wales was a nasty wake-up call.

"Hunter's just now getting some confidence with his chipping," said his caddie of seven years, John Wood. "He's finally got to a point where [he] is both technically sound and mentally sound with his chipping.

"There were weeks where he was technically sound, but he didn't have the confidence that he could make the strokes."

In the high desert at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain, Mahan had a tournament-leading 35 birdies in his six matches. He struggled in his first round against Zach Johnson, winning in 19 holes, but after that he played loose and worry-free golf.

"He didn't try to do anything special," Wood said. "He was driving it so good, so he was in every hole. I have never seen him play this well over six days."

At 29 years old, Mahan is seven years the senior of McIlroy. And on Sunday the older man stood in the way of the crowning of a new No. 1 player in the world. It was inevitable. It's still inevitable. But Mahan has lived a little bit. He's seen enough in the game to know how to win under pressure.

"Deep down you wanted to postpone that crowning of the No. 1 player in the world for Rory," Mahan said. "He'll get there. He'll be No. 1 eventually. I'm not worried about it. I'm sure he's not."

Still, with his best years ahead, Mahan should be thinking about making his own rise to No. 1. Now that he's an adequate chipper there is no reason to doubt his chances or his self-belief.

After five straight weeks of playing, Mahan will take off a week before he enters the next WGC event at Doral. He's due a good rest. Hopefully he takes this time to consider how what McIlroy narrowly missed on Sunday could one day be his own.

Hold the coronation

After beating his rival Lee Westwood in the semifinals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play, it seemed inevitable that Rory McIlroy would win the championship match and take over No. 1 in the world from Luke Donald. But in the end, Hunter Mahan held him off with a 2 and 1 win.

The 22-year-old Ulsterman could have become the second youngest player ever to grab the No. 1 ranking in the world. Tiger Woods was 21 when he first became No. 1 in June 1997.

Still, after winning last year's U.S. Open, McIlroy is on course to be the best player of his generation. His power game and touch around the green will make him a formidable presence at major championships for years to come.

On Sunday, McIlroy played his best match in the semis against Westwood. He was 3 down early but rallied to take the lead by 1 before they made the turn. His gritty 3 and 1 win was either going to drain him mentally or give him the momentum to beat Mahan, who had made a tournament-leading 28 birdies coming into the match. The 29-year-old Orange, Calif., native made another seven birdies in the championship match.

"I was getting myself up for that semifinal match and I knew that would be the hardest thing when I came out in the afternoon," said McIlroy, who shot 5-under par over his last seven holes in the championship match. "It probably took me a few holes to get going in the afternoon. But that's not really an excuse."

For now we can hold off the coronation of McIlroy as the heir apparent to Tiger. At No. 2 in the world, he'll catch Donald before too long. He's been fast-tracked almost from the very moment he turned pro in 2007. But at 22, he shouldn't be in a hurry because he'll become king when it's his time.

Tiger's "Big Sickness"

At the WGC-Accenture Match Play, Tiger Woods lost in the second round to Nick Watney in a match that went down to the 18th hole. Watney's 1-up victory was a feather in the cap for the 30-year-old Californian, but for Tiger it was more evidence of his putting woes. On Thursday, Woods missed eight putts inside 15 feet, including a 5-footer that would have extended the match.

All great players struggle with putting at some point in their careers. Jack Nicklaus' putting got so bad in his early 40s that he once said he had 40 putts in an exhibition round with Tom Watson. The yips tormented Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Watson and Bernhard Langer.

So it's not surprising that Tiger is having problems with the flat stick. The 71-time PGA Tour winner said Thursday he was blocking his putts. And all week he complained about the difficulty of reading the greens. He gave this laborious explanation after his 1 up win over Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano in the first round.

"I did hit a couple of bad putts. But I had a hard time reading these greens," Woods said. "You have the slope of the greens, there's the valley down there, but then the grain on the greens isn't matching up with the valley. So a lot of times it goes with the slopes on the greens. So how much do you play for each?"

Tiger wasn't the only player in the field who found the greens tricky, grainy and difficult to read. Nor was he the only player who had the wind switch on him in the middle of his swing. Yet you wouldn't know any of this by the way Tiger cussed and fussed over every little thing that didn't go his way on the golf course.

After shooting 3-over par in the first round of the 2010 U.S. Open, Tiger called the greens at Pebble Beach "awful." Everyone has seen him have fits over photographer clicks. Not in the middle of my swing.

On Thursday, I watched him throw his club and spew a litany of F-bombs after he hit an errant iron shot from the fairway bunker at the 10th hole. You would have thought by his reaction that he had hit the poor shot from a perfect lie in the middle of the fairway, not from a downslope in the bunker.

Tiger is a complainer: a chronically dissatisfied player in search of perfection. One of my colleagues said to me that if Tiger wanted perfect conditions -- pure greens and calm winds -- he should have played in the Humana Challenge in mid-January.

It's hard to peg a reason for Woods' incessant whining and complaining. With 14 majors, he's had his share of good breaks in tournaments. The game doesn't owe him anything. When Nicklaus went through his putting troubles, he kept searching until he could find a putter that would help him regain his confidence on the greens. Langer went to a long putter to save his career.

Tiger's putting slump could end next week at the Honda Classic. But if he continues to struggle, I hope he doesn't blame it on the greens. If the wind switches in the middle of his swing at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., I hope that he doesn't curse Mother Nature.

Yet even if things manage to go his way and he wins for the first time on the PGA Tour in close to three years, I'm sure he'll find something to complain about. Because as Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) told Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) in Woody Allen's 2008 movie "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," chronic dissatisfaction is a "big sickness."

Family ties

The semifinal match between Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood offered one of the most riveting scenarios in the WGC-Accenture Match Play's 14-year history. You had adversaries fighting it out for a chance to reach the finals and the opportunity to become No. 1 in the world.

Easily their match was the most interesting of the tournament. With three birdies, Westwood went 3 up after four holes. But by the 8th hole they were all square and McIlroy took the lead with a birdie at the 9th hole. The 22-year-old Ulsterman never trailed again and would close out the match on the 17th hole for a 3 and 1 victory.

The defeat must have been a bitter disappointment for the 38-year-old Westwood, who had once played a big brother role of sorts to the much younger McIlroy. They had both been under the management of Chubby Chandler, a burly and bon vivant former English golfer who was the don of a stable of players that also included major champions Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Darren Clarke.

Then last October, McIlroy left the family to join a management group in Ireland. On Twitter, Westwood called the decision "bizarre."

It's not that things were perfect between them before last fall, but now they admittedly don't spend much time together. "[Rory] doesn't want to spend time with the people that manage me, and I don't want to spend time with the people that manage Rory," Westwood said on Saturday.

We make so much of the individual nature of the sport. Each player is his own silo -- like a boxer with an entourage of trainers and managers. But this episode with McIlroy and Westwood demonstrates how important management teams are to the game and how seriously these players take the bonds of their insular world on tour.

Mac Barnhardt runs Crown Sports Management, a Sea Island, Ga., operation that represents mostly players who played their college golf in the southeastern United States. Several of his clients -- Jonathan Byrd, Lucas Glover, Harris English, Davis Love III, Brian Harman -- live on Sea Island. Barnhardt takes a comprehensive approach to every aspect of their careers from travel to instruction to financial planning. Young players like English and Harman have a built-in support system on tour with older stable mates like Byrd, Love, Brandt Snedeker, David Duval and Johnson Wagner. As rookies on the PGA Tour, they'll grow from these friendships forged through their sports agency.

Clearly, McIlroy blossomed under Chandler's tutelage at International Sports Management. Westwood, Schwartzel and Clarke were all good role models for him as he navigated the challenges of playing an international schedule. Chandler and these older players were his big brothers. They had nurtured him to greatness and now he was leaving the flock.

The family ties were irrevocably broken. In their match on Sunday morning in the high desert of Arizona, McIlroy could have thanked Westwood for helping him to this place in the sun.

Match Play and No. 1

Luke Donald was upset 5 and 4 in the first round of the Match Play by Ernie Els. Yet it wasn't really much of a surprise. A week before at the Northern Trust Open, the No. 1 player in the world had made eight bogeys in his last 12 holes to shoot a 7-over 78 and finish in a tie for 56th. Last year, he won the Match Play without ever being behind in a match.

With Donald out of the tournament, all eyes turned to Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, who had a chance if they won to take over No. 1.

All of a sudden there was some hype around the Official World Golf Ranking. It wasn't just a tool to help players get into the majors and the World Golf Championships. Two men were actually competing in a 64-man field for the title of No. 1 in the world.

During March Madness, NCAA basketball teams are seeded by their records over the course of the season. Any of those 64 teams has a chance of winning the tournament. If Butler had beaten Duke in the national championship game a couple of years ago, the Bulldogs would have been the No. 1-ranked team after that tournament. Most likely, they wouldn't have been on top of the ranking when they came out the following season, but for the time being they would have been the best team in the country.

The Official World Ranking shouldn't just be the gatekeeper to big-pursed events and the majors, but a more unpredictable and flexible system to bring more excitement and drama to the game. It might be unfair to make the 64th ranked player No. 1 after a win at the Match Play, but wouldn't it be special to have a final every year that crowned the top player in the world?

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.