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The Hunter Games: Mahan Last Man Standing at SHO

on 02 April 2012.

HUMBLE, Texas—Golf’s champions are so often made on the back nine. No one played the inward loop at the Shell Houston Open better than Hunter Mahan, and because of it the 29-year-old from Colleyville held off Sweden’s Carl Pettersson to become the PGA Tour’s first two-time winner this season.

Hunter Mahan moved up to No. 4 in the World Golf Rankings with his Shell Houston Open victory.Hunter Mahan moved up to No. 4 in the World Golf Rankings with his Shell Houston Open victory.Mahan overcame a two-shot deficit with a final round 71 to finish at 16-under-par 272 for the championship. He beat Pettersson, a four-time winner on tour, by a single shot. Mahan, who two years ago broke down and cried after losing the final U.S. point at the 2010 Ryder Cup, is now the best American golfer in the game. He moved up to No. 4 in the World Golf Rankings—the highest spot held by a U.S. player—and leads the FedExCup points race, too.

Mahan, who also won the World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play in February, tore through the final nine holes on The Tournament Course at Redstone Golf Club at 11-under par for the week. He suffered only one bogey on the back nine all week and had just two for the tournament.

So once the former Oklahoma State All-American seized his first lead with a five-foot birdie on the ninth hole Sunday—after hitting 3-iron in tight on the 238-yard par 3—he had to feel good about his chances to notch his fifth career tour victory.

“Yeah, that helped a lot,” Mahan said of his proficiency on the back nine. “I hit a lot of fairways, and I was happy I didn’t hit a ball in the water all week. I felt that was a big key because it’s pretty easy to hit one bad shot in the water and made a double out here. On the back nine, you have a good stretch of the first few holes to make birdies.”

That’s exactly what Mahan did. He played holes 10-12 at 8-under for the week, and birdied the 10th hole in the final three rounds. The six-footer he dropped Sunday on the 389-yard, par-4 10th gave him a two-shot lead over Pettersson, who held a share of the lead after the first round with a 7-under 65.

Pettersson held the final round lead for a stretch on the front nine, after 54-hole leader Louis Oosthuizen fell apart in his bid to win for the first time on U.S. soil. The 2010 British Open champion suffered two early double bogeys Sunday and took himself out of contention with a 5-over-par 41 on the front nine. He finished at 14-under for third place.

“I’m not going to be bothered about the way I played the front nine,” Oosthuizen said. “I had a few horrific lies and bounces. It happens. Another day it goes my way.”

At about the same time Petterson made his only bogey Sunday—he failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker—Mahan jarred his birdie on the ninth to move ahead.

Mahan never looked back.

“It felt good to have the lead for nine holes or so and hang on,” he said. “Most of my other wins have come from behind, so it was nice to win a different way. It was nice to come through when I had to and hit some good shots when I had to.”

Had Pettersson, who missed the cut in his two previous tour starts, made his 19-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole Sunday, it would’ve forced Mahan to made birdie on Redstone’s treacherous, 486-yard par 4 with water all down the left side. Instead, Pettersson’s birdie bid came up about a foot short.

“I decelerated on it. I thought it was a quicker putt and it was right in the middle,” he said. “I should have given it a better shot. What can you do?”

What Mahan can do is celebrate another huge payday—$1.08 million. With six top 25s in seven starts this season, including the two wins, he’s already banked almost $3 million in winnings ($2,937,240 to be exact). Mahan also is only one of three players with at least four PGA Tour victories since 2010 (Steve Stricker has five; Bill Haas has four). With apologies to Tiger Woods, who won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last week, no player is riding more momentum into the Masters next week than Mahan.

“I know my mind is capable (of winning the Masters),” he said. “Physically I feel capable. Hopefully I have that situation and opportunity (a chance to win on the back nine at Augusta). I’m going to feel excited to be there and maybe more comfortable. I’ll take a lot from this week, but Augusta is its own animal.”

Phil Mickelson failed to repeat as SHO champion, unable to back up his stellar first round score of 65. He needed only 25 putts in the opening round, but the putts stopped dropping after that. He never broke 70 again, finishing with 70-70-71 to grab a share of fourth place at 12-under 276 with Keegan Bradley, Jeff Overton and Brian Davis. Former UH star Fred Couples finished tied for 47th place at 3-under 285.

Be sure to read more coverage on the SHO in the May issue of Texas Links magazines.

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