Hunter Mahan is astud. Twenty-five and single, little fluffy goatee, shades on the brim of hisPing hat, sneaky long, big white teeth. His caddie gives him clubs, yardages,bottles of mineral water mixed with Amino Vital. His psychologist is on speeddial. He's loaded with talent and confidence and game. He has the strut and theOklahoma State (first-team All-America there) pom-pom headcovers. Uses good forwell when it suits him. Finishes 13th at Oakmont and comes to Hartford, to atournament he first played as a teenage amateur, and it looks. . . . ¬∂ Truth?To hell with the golf gods. What he's really thinking when he arrives at TPCRiver Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., last week? The course looks easy. AfterOakmont? Cake. He birdies the 1st hole last Thursday, then the 2nd and the 3rdand the 4th, signs for an eight-under 62, breezes into the tent and says,"I really didn't do anything spectacular. Put the ball in play." You'renot going to beat this guy, not even in your dreams. ¬∂ Now Vijay Singh andDavid Toms and Fred Funk might have begged to differ, and they were all goinggood (as Mahan might say) through 54 holes last week, and if you had all threeof them in your fantasy league, you'd feel like a genius. But all three of themspent Sunday mostly hanging around, making pars, and you can't do that atHartford. By late Sunday afternoon the large galleries had settled in on thefinal twosome of the day.
At that point, onthe longest Sunday of the year, the first stop on the Tour's lazy summerschedule was in full swing, right on cue. There was Jim Nantz setting up NickFaldo in the CBS booth, dappled light all over the course and Travelersexecutives, old-school insurance guys in blazers and ties, watching from theedges. They bought the tournament name and saved an event that the Ponte Vedrasuits could not kill, and now Hartford is the Travelers Championship. But itremains what it's always been, a local event, philanthropic and entertaining.Last week, it was wildly so, even after Singh and Toms and Funk faded and therewas only one man left who could forestall the inevitable, Hunter Mahan's firstvictory on the PGA Tour. That man was a 40-year-old journeyman, a Nationwidetour regular playing on a sponsor's exemption.
Jay Williamsoncame to Hartford with no Tour status--no Tour wins, no big Tour bag, one wife,three kids, no nanny (at least not on Sunday afternoon, when Kim Pride, wife ofDicky, watched the Williamson kids despite the fact that her hubby had missedthe cut).
The Prides, theWilliamsons, whole bunches of others at Hartford, know all about the MC life.That's the other Tour, the one Phil and Tiger barely know. The stakes atHartford were higher for Williamson than they were for Mahan. Mahan's day wouldcome sooner or later. Everyone in golf could see that. Williamson couldn't makethe same statement. At his age, the journeyman knows how few chances you get towin and to get yourself on firm ground. Ask Bobby Wadkins or Jay Delsing or DanForsman. You've got to seize the day.
A win would makeWilliamson an exempt player through the end of 2009; get him into next year'sMasters; pay him $1.08 million; allow him to make a schedule, a year's worth ofmortgage payments, school tuitions and all the rest. Sure, a win would be hugefor Mahan too, but in golf as in life it's hard to compare 25 and single withmarried and 40 with three kids. Williamson got into Hartford only by"writing for a spot," as the fringe players call a sponsor's exemption.Scores of players do it, and it's safe to say not one of them enjoys it.Williamson did it by e-mail.
Williamson had anin at Hartford. He went to college in the insurance capital, at Trinity, wherehe was the captain of the baseball and hockey teams. (He was barely a golfer inthose days.) He graduated in four years with a degree in political science.
So he wasn't RockyBalboa or even Roy (Tin Cup) McAvoy. Williamson is a son of the Midwest (St.Louis) who went to a private high school (John Burroughs) and whose family hada membership at a country club (Bellerive, where the Tour's going in 2008 forthe BMW Championship).
Still, there's agritty jock in there. His left calf is half the size of his right one, theresidue of a childhood clubfoot. After college he moved to Orlando to work atthe Grand Cypress Resort. When he was Mahan's age he was a kid in polyesterknickers who parked cars, but the job came with one big benefit: unlimitedrange balls.
Mahan andWilliamson in the final two-ball was a junior version of the 2000 PGAChampionship, with Mahan in the role of Tiger Woods and Williamson playing BobMay, except this one wasn't about sporting history or old jugs or any grandthing. It was simply golf.
After one hole onSunday (bogey for Williamson, par for Mahan) the two were tied at 11 under.Mahan's golf was close to perfect, one solid, smart, stinging shot afteranother. Williamson was slightly off--in the rough here, a bad chip there--buthe wasn't going away. Through 14, Mahan had a two-shot lead. Williamson made abirdie on 15, a drivable par-4, and Mahan made bogeys on 16 and 17. Thecan't-miss kid and the journeyman came to the 18th hole with Williamson leadingby a shot.
Both drove it inthe fairway on the par-4 last, and Williamson hit his approach shot, with aseven-iron, to 11 feet. Mahan stuffed his, a nine-iron to five feet. As theyapproached the green Williamson waited for Mahan for a moment, tapped him onthe shoulder and said, "Nice shot." It was a gracious move. Some otherguys--Lanny Wadkins, Hubert Green, Tom Watson, Curtis Strange, Tiger Woods,Vijay Singh, a long list of Hall of Famers--would probably never have thoughtto do it. They'd be thinking about nothing but the putt to win. Nicklaus mighthave done it. Dan Forsman, you could see him doing it too.
Williamson missedon the low side, and Mahan's was smack-dab in the middle. All square. Theplayoff hole, played on 18, was the same thing all over again: Williamsonclose, Mahan closer (BIG PLAY, page¬†G14). Williamson missed; Mahan closedthe deal.
Williamson cleanedout his locker and said, "My life's better now than it was on Monday."You couldn't argue that. He earned $648,000, and his second-place finish gothim a spot in this week's Tour stop in Flint, Mich. But how the rest of hisyear will play out he doesn't know. Where he will play next year he doesn'tknow. Where he'll play in 2009 he doesn't know. He wasn't even close to elated.A chance had come and gone. There's no saying when the next one will turnup.
In victory Mahansaid something insightful: "After you play out here for a little bit yourealize, This is hard. Being a professional golfer, it's not easy. Not easy towin. There are a lot of great players who haven't won yet. You definitely thinkyou're good enough to win. I thought I was. But you just never know what'sgoing to happen."
In April he'll bein the field at Augusta. The last time he was there, he was a hotshot amateur.There are a lot of hotshot amateurs. Over the years, fewer than a thousand guyshave won on the PGA Tour. It's an elite club. Hunter Mahan is now in. At thisvery moment there are a few hundred golfers out there, prowling the country,trying to join him. Jay Williamson is one of them. He's still at large.
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An Old Favorite
A course that's fun and not too long, and a chance tocontend make Hartford a must-play event for pros of a certain age
JOEY SINDELAR is old enough that he still reads amorning newspaper, for news and box scores and golf results. In his Mondaypaper, on the list of finishers at Hartford--now called the TravelersChampionship, but Hartford to all those with reading glasses--there were nameshe's known for decades.
Fred Funk, 51, finished fifth. Tom Lehman, 48, tied forsixth. Kenny Perry, 46, came in 15th. Olin Browne, 48, and Tom Pernice, 47,tied for 22nd. Brad Faxon, 45, was 33rd. Corey Pavin, 47, and Bob Tway, 48,tied for 36th, as did Sindelar himself, 49. Mark Calcavecchia, 47, wound up55th. Graybeard heaven.
Sindelar is so old he played Hartford when Sammy DavisJr. presided over the tournament. Faxon won the event in 2005, when he was 44.Peter Jacobsen won in 2003, when he was 49.
There's one underlying reason that old guys play TPCRiver Highlands well: It's a short (just over 6,800 yards) par-70. Nick Pricehas been saying ever since Tiger won his first Masters in 1997 that if you wantto encourage more players to contend, you should shorten the courses, notlengthen them. River Highlands is a true position course, and the Tour is farbetter off for having it. Watching Bubba Watson and Brett Wetterich week afterweek, you can get the idea that the only way to make a mark on the Tour now isto launch bombs and gouge wedges. Funk and Lehman and others, while makingtheir 2007 schedules, were pleased to find that's not entirely true.
"Tiger does a smart thing when he makes hisschedule, choosing courses that suit him, and I'm trying to do the samething," Lehman says. The old guys congregate at some of the Tour's best andcoziest spots: at Waialae in Honolulu; at the AT&T Pro-Am, for Pebble andSpyglass and Poppy Hills; at Colonial in Fort Worth; at Harbour Town in HiltonHead; at Westchester outside New York City; at Brown Deer in Milwaukee; at theBritish Open. And at Hartford. When Sindelar &¬†Co. began their careersthere were more courses like these--RIP, En-Joie--but they are grateful for thesurvivors.
Course length alone, however, cannot explain why somany pros ages 45 and over played well last week at Hartford. Over the years,expectations changed. "When I was first playing, there was less incentivefor the older players to keep their games sharp after 40," Sindelar says."You finished 150th, you lost money. Now you can make $650,000."
Funk considers himself a full-time regular Tour playerand a mere visitor to the Champions tour. "Oakmont, tee to green, I playedwell enough to win," Funk says. He finished 30th in the U.S. Open. Hisgoal, every week, is to contend. "I want to put myself in position to win.That's the biggest thing. If I can continue to do that, that would begreat."
His goals are inspiring, really: to continue to enjoythe thrill of competition, to make big bucks at a thing he loves, to travel toterrific places and play in front of adoring crowds, to slow down the agingprocess. Nice work, if you can get it.--M.B.
The final two-ball was a JUNIOR VERSION OF THE 2000PGA, with Mahan as Tiger Woods and Williamson as Bob May.
Photograph by Chris Condon/PGA Tour/WireImage.com
on the money Mahan missed only one fairway, the 17th, during the Sunday 65 that brought him his first Tour win.
STILL TICKING Frisky Funk, who finished 30th in the U.S. Open, was on the first page of the leader board all week at TPC River Highlands.
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY (2)
¬†DoubleClutch While Mahan birdied 18 twice, Williamson just missed a pair of putts tomatch him.
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
GOLDEN GRIND Since 1995 Williamson (with Justin, left, and Whitney) has made 279 starts on Tour without a win.