Hunter or Hunted? Mahan Defends in the Desert

Hunter Mahan Won the 2010 Waste Management Phoenix Open
Hunter Mahan Won the 2010 Waste Management Phoenix Open

It seems obvious that a lot of people turn to the defending champion each week on the PGA with high hopes and expectations.  I mean, if a guy can win on a course once why can’t he follow it up the very next year?

It is not that simple so as nice as it is to drag Hunter Mahan into the media room at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, is it really fair to expect he will repeat last year’s exploits?  Not really, but based on his play last week, why not?

Admittedly a slow starter each year Mahan said Tuesday that he thinks he is really ahead of pace on last year, his finest season to date with two wins and more than $3.5 million in earnings.  “…actually, to already be in contention last group on Sunday and to finish 6th already is kind of ahead of the game, and my game doesn’t feel far off,” said Mahan when asked to compare this year to last. “I don’t feel like I need to search for a couple weeks for my technique and everything. So actually, it’s not far off. I just need reps and I just need to keep going and keep swinging and get some rounds underneath me.”

While most players would look at a top ten in just their second start of the year as a sign of things really coming together Mahan says that under the hood, his engine is not really running as smoothly as he would like.  As time wore on last week, even though his scoring was solid (except for the final day 73) he really felt the best part of his skill set was not as refined as it could be, leaving room to think he might be peaking just in time for his title defense.  “I was hitting it worse as the days went on, which was surprising, which is pretty rare for me. I’m a pretty good ball striker.

Mahan says his inability to hit the ball the way he wanted did put pressure on others parts of his game but that happily his driving, wedge play, and putting exceed his expectations.  “I was in the tournament for most of Sunday (at the Farmers Insurance Open), which was actually kind of nice.”

What should not be lost in this conversation is the fact that Mahan won with a game of similar sorts in Scottsdale in 2010.  With 68 on day one and a front nine 38 to follow the next day Mahan thought he was headed to a miss cut late on Friday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.  That all changed when he birdied four of this last eight holes for a back nine 32 – creating momentum that he carried into the weekend.  A nicely matched set of 65’s allowed him to catch and pass rookie Rickie Fowler to win by a stroke at sixteen under par.

Fowler will be among those looking for revenge this week but he may have to pull it off in temperatures he is not accustomed to, being a Southern California native. Low temperatures will hover just above freezing this week with highs escalating only into the low 60’s, unusual for the tournament but something that had to be expected when it was repositioned on the schedule to a slightly earlier slot.

That being the case, look for the guys who can really bust it to be in the hunt as they will be the ones with length to burn even if the cold takes down their averages drives by a notch or two.  Dustin Johnson, hot off a 3rd place tie at the Farmers Insurance Open, has to be considered a threat as does super-rookie Jhonnatan Vegas.

The sleepers have to be a trio of players with hot hands and lots of yardage to take on the seven par fours over 420 yards in length at the TPC of Scottsdale – last week’s winner Bubba Watson, along with Bob Hope playoff victim Gary Woodland, and Nick Watney – fresh off a Sunday 63 in La Jolla.

Canuck Watch: Only Stephen Ames will be representing Canada this week in Phoenix.

Waste Management Phoenix Open Summary

Dates: February 3-6, 2011

Where: TPC Scottsdale (71/7,216), Scottsdale, Arizona

FedExCup Points: 500

Format: 72-hole stroke play

Purse: $6,100,000; Winner’s Share: $1,098,000

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