Hunter Mahan: A Lion on the Links
Former McKinney High Golf Star Hasn’t Let PGA Tour Success Change Him
Photos by Andy Lyons / Getty Images
Hunter Mahan is a busy guy these days – and that’s understandable. The former McKinney High School standout was one of the hottest golfers on the Professional Golf Association Tour: No. 4 in the FedExCup standings and one of just three Tour pros with two or more wins this year.
“He’s having a great year,” says his former MHS Coach Jerry Crumpton, who now coaches at Boyd. “He’s at the point where he’s probably going to just get better and better. It’s going to be exciting when he wins his first major.”
Mahan, 30, has five Tour wins since turning pro eight years ago, including this year’s Shell Houston Open and the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson. The Shell Houston Open victory perched him atop the PGA money list for a time and landed him fourth in the world rankings.
When interviewed, Mahan had just wrapped up play in the AT&T National in Maryland, a tournament he led after shooting a scorching second-round 65, before finishing tied for eighth. “It was a good week,” Mahan says. “I felt like I played pretty well. I just didn’t score as well as I wanted to on the weekend.”
“I think you just learn a lot when you’re on Tour by yourself, playing,” he says of his pro experience to date. “You see what it takes to beat the best players in the world. … You’re playing against guys that have been great players for a long time.”
As the top junior golfer in the country when he entered the University of Southern California in 2000, Mahan made an immediate splash with the Trojans, earning PAC-10 Freshman of the Year and First-Team all-conference honors.
He then transferred to Oklahoma State, where he was twice named Big 12 Player of the Year and First Team All-American before turning pro.
Why the switch to OSU? “The personality of Oklahoma State just fit me better,” Mahan says. “It was kind of a smaller town, a college town. And Oklahoma State’s got great history of an incredible golf program.”
Mahan earned his PGA card in 2004 at the age of 21 and, as the second-youngest Tour player that year, proceeded to notch three Top 10 finishes.
A Dream Realized
Mahan’s first win came at the 2007 Travelers Championship in Connecticut, a heart-thumping playoff with Jay Williamson. Mahan had fired a first-round 62 before settling in at 15-under par with Williamson at the end of regulation play. A two-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole sealed the deal for Mahan.
“It was definitely a dream come true to win a PGA Tour event,” he says. “And to do it in such a clutch fashion the way I did, it really felt good.”
The 5-foot-11 Mahan has represented the United States on five Presidents Cup teams and one Ryder Cup team.
“He was just committed to being a competitor,” Crumpton says. “He wanted to win every time he showed up. And most of the time, he did.”
In high school, Mahan won the Texas 5A state championship in 1999 and led the McKinney Lions to two district titles.
“He was the type of player that when we’d go to a tournament, the other kids would ask, ‘Did you bring Hunter?’ and ‘Which one is he?’ Other coaches would end up following him, watching him play, instead of their own players at times,” Crumpton says.
Crumpton recalls a district tournament near Bridgeport, Texas, when Mahan shot a 64 in the opening round. “The greens keeper and general manager said, ‘We’re going to fix the course tomorrow where there will not be a high school kid break 70 on our golf course.’”
The next day Mahan just missed a six-foot putt on 18 to finish at 65.
“Both of those guys were apologetic afterward,” Crumpton says. “They said, ‘That kid can play.’”
Big Difference in Skills
Brian Palmer, president of Pinnacle Funding Group of McKinney, was Mahan’s teammate at McKinney High and is still a close friend.
“He was definitely the best, most focused, dedicated [player on the team],” Palmer says, “and that’s probably the reason for his success today. … You really don’t take a lot of that stuff seriously at 16 or 17. But he did.”
Palmer was No. 2 behind Mahan on the Lions’ squad, but Palmer says that’s deceiving. “There was a big gap between me and him. He was the best golfer I ever played with and ever will play with.”
Palmer, who was Mahan’s best man when Mahan married former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Kandi Harris in January 2011, says he’s noticed no change in Mahan since he started cashing million-dollar paychecks.
“He’s the same guy, probably a little bit more laid back, now that he’s made something of himself. … I think that’s what’s so great about him. Regardless of his success, he’s the same person.”
Mahan’s favorite pro golfers are Tiger Woods, David Duval and Ernie Els.
What does Mahan find most impressive about Woods’ game? “It’s just his complete focus and desire to be the best, and not live under anyone else’s rules on how to be a pro and how to play the game,” he says.
And Duval? “I love David Duval’s demeanor on the course. You just had no idea what he was thinking out there. He never looked rattled. Kind of the same for Ernie Els,” Mahan says.
Mahan says his favorite memories of McKinney High golf involve relationships he built while on the team. “They’re still people I hang out with today,” he says. “I’m still real good friends with a lot of them.”
Mahan has this advice for young McKinney golfers with PGA Tour dreams: “I would say don’t focus on … your score. Just focus on trying to get better. Every day you go on the golf course, try to learn and never feel like a bad tournament or a bad shot is a failure.”
Mahan’s parents are more than a little proud of their PGA golfer. “I’m mostly proud of the man that he’s grown into,” says Mahan’s father Monte.
His mother Cindy says she’s most proud of how he’s adjusted to life on the Tour. “It’s tough out there. There are a lot of things you have to get used to, and he’s just really always kept a good perspective,” she says.
When Hunter Mahan was just 9 years old, his father realized something was up with the child’s golf game. Monte had enrolled his son in a group golf lesson offered by a friend. An hour into the session, the friend called Monte to say Hunter had “kind of quit playing.”
“Why?” Monte asked. “Because,” said the friend, “he couldn’t figure out why the other kids weren’t hitting the targets.”
Around age 10, Mahan had devoted himself solely to one sport: golf. “We were very fortunate to have him hook up with some really good teachers,” says Monte.
In 1996, when Mahan was 13, Monte retired from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the family moved to McKinney. Here, Monte was able to work on golf with Mahan almost daily, going over what he was being taught. By the time Mahan entered McKinney High, he already had plenty of game.
“He came to us with a great game and just got better and better,” says Crumpton.
Not surprisingly, “better and better” is still in Mahan’s game plan.
“I’m still just trying to be the best golfer or person I can be,” Mahan says. “I’m trying to get better every day at that. No matter what happens on the course, that’s really not going to change.”
About the author: Rick Atkinson is a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot and commercial airline pilot who lives in McKinney with his wife Debbie. He is a freelance writer and cartoonist.