Monthly Archives: September 2015

Hunter Mahan Breaks the Spell in New Jersey

Hey everyone, this is bonus material from my original manuscript of the book Slaying the Tiger. This text didn’t find its way into the book, but I’m making it available to you, my loyal readers. TBR is the only place you’ll find this material.  If you like this, you’ll find plenty more to like in the book, available at this link. This installment was written after Hunter Mahan’s performance at the Barclays in last year’s FedExCup playoffs. It includes quite a bit of background on Mahan, including his complicated relationship with his father, that was cut from the book.

The FedExCup Playoffs, Part Two: Hunter Breaks the Spell in New Jersey 

In 2014 the FedExCup began just outside Jersey City, at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, a woodland course dominated by massive oaks and beeches with trunks so gray that they almost look plastic. The famous architect A.W. Tillinghast designed the 27-hole course in 1929, and all 27 holes remain. When the Tour comes into town, though, they pick out the 18 toughest holes and create a synthetic course, leaving behind anything bland or easy. It’s also very, very long, with three par-5s topping out at over 580 yards, including the 626-yard 13th, which forces even the likes of Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson to lay up.

Early in the week, on the putting green outside the incredible Tudor-style clubhouse, with its brick chimneys and dormer windows and massive conical roof, I witnessed an interesting spectacle. Ian Poulter was walking by on his way to practice, and when the fans screamed for him, he slowed down to sign a few autographs. Poulter didn’t sign in the normal way, though—with his earphones in, music blasting, he simply grabbed a placard or hat or whatever was handed to him, continued walking down the row as he scrawled his name, then reached out to hand the object back to whoever felt like taking it from him—ideally, it would be the same person who gave it to him in the fist place, but Poulter didn’t seem to care. He’d simply grab the next item, keep walking, and hand it over, and so on. In this way, he satisfied roughly one of out of every ten fans, and never even looked at them once—a true prima donna performance.

New Jersey, not to be outdone, struck back with its own unique flavor later in the week. As players signed autographs and held interviews just off the clubhouse porch, a man with long hair, a Rutgers jersey, and a bucket hat decided he was going to harass Justin Rose.

“What do you got there, a 30?” he shouted. Rose looked back, puzzled.

“Your waist size!” the man continued. Rose just smiled uncomfortably, unsure where this conversation was going. The man waved a hand at him dismissively, then turned his attention to Rose’s clubs

“Taylor Made?!” he yelled, now being egged on by the gallery. “Those pants are tailor-made! In London!”

Rose thought maybe he could cure the man of his pants obsession by signing an autograph, so he made his way over, still smiling. The man handed him the bucket hat, watched him sign, then stared in mock disbelief at the signature.

“Hey!” he exclaimed in shock, now playing to the crowd. “He signed my hat ‘Pete Rose!’”

As the laughter rose, Rose’s nervous grin grew wider, and he anxiously began plotting his escape as his agent hovered nearby, clearing a path.

“Is that a 34 inseam?” the man went on, now back on the pants. “What are you rocking there?”

With one last grin, Rose was away, probably determined never to return to New Jersey as long as he lived.


Rory McIlroy shot an opening round 74, which was no surprise considering the energy he had spent winning two majors and a WGC event over the past month. Immediately following his victory at Valhalla, he flew to New York City, where he and a posse that included his manager, chef, and some childhood friends immediately went out to a Chelsea night club. The party continued throughout Monday, according the New York Post, and ended 24 hours later, around 2:30 a.m., at another Chelsea club called “Avenue.” He then flew back to England, where that Saturday he paraded the Claret Jug around Old Trafford, the famous stadium home of Manchester United.

Then it was back to New York, where he appeared with Tiger Woods on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and stirred up the slightest bit of controversy with a quote that seemed innocuous on the surface—“makes me appreciate how hard he worked, and how dominant a figure he was in our game”—but that raised eyebrows for its use of the past tense. Nor did Tiger let Rory’s recent accomplishments go unchecked—in their private moments, he told him that he wasn’t done yet, and he was going to make it hard for him to win the career slam at Augusta in the spring.

After that whirlwind tour, he was due for a letdown at the Barclays, and it came with Thursday’s 74. He struck back with a 65 on Friday, but a 70 on Saturday placed him five shots below the leaders, with plenty stacked between them.

On Sunday, the co-leaders at 9-under were a pair of men who could desperately use a win—Jason Day, coming off his cursed season, and Jim Furyk, who had threatened again and again but routinely faltered at the critical moment. Furyk hadn’t won an event since 2010, despite playing excellent golf that had kept him near the top of the sport well into his 40s. His most recent chance, at the Canadian Open in July, was probably the most difficult—he looked like a sure winner until Tim Clark chased him down with a 30 on the back nine, pipping him at the line by a stroke.

Day didn’t inspire a ton of confidence either. Despite having his best chance to win since the Accenture Match Play in February, didn’t sound like a 54-hole co-leader on Saturday. He felt that his game was still just slightly off during the third round—especially with the driver—and you could sense his anxiety heading into Sunday.

“So I’m going to do some practice, try and sort something out there,” he told us, after he finished. “Try to straighten it out a little bit. I know I’m a good ball‑striker and I hit it very good. I just have to believe in myself. I think that’s the biggest thing is to go out there and really have the belief in myself that I can compete and play against the best players in the world and win, is what I need to try and get through my mind and that’s the last thing.”

Furyk gave his usual entertaining press conference on Saturday, and spoke eloquently about getting old in a young man’s game.

“When I look at the guys out here that honestly, I’m old enough to be their father,” he said, “and a lot of times I’m sitting in the family room and we’re talking about, you know, there’s been subjects…I look back and go, wow, that was a long time ago that things like that crossed my mind.”

On Sunday, both players made two early birdies before bogeying the fourth, and at the turn, Day led the tournament at -11, one ahead of Furyk. It lasted just two more holes, at which point a bogey put him a shot behind Hunter Mahan, who had made birdie on 11 to edge into the lead.


Monte Mahan, a surfer kid and former LAPD undercover cop turned high school golf coach and teaching pro, started his son Hunter playing at age nine, when the family still lived in southern California. It was the beginning of a tricky relationship between father, son, and sport. In fact, Mahan was one of the few golfers I spoke to all year who admitted that he was often annoyed with his father, a helicopter parent who was so invested in his son’s success that he sometimes overstepped his bounds, placing undue pressure on the boy and even breaching golf etiquette in public.

“He was frustrating at times,” Mahan said. “My dad was very involved. He wanted the best for me, and at times it was too much for him. He just tried too hard.”

For the elder Mahan, long-term thinking was difficult; he worried that if his son faltered at a young age, he’d continue to fall behind his peers, fail to get a college scholarship, and sabotage his professional dreams—dreams which were equally Monte’s. He gave all of his time to his son, and drove him hard on the golf course, but that passion came with its blind spots. It wasn’t in Monte’s toolbox to let Hunter fail and pick himself up, or accept the usual wavering focus and temporary skill setbacks that all kids experience. It didn’t help that he had a room-filling personality that contrasted with his son’s natural reserve.

Monte hovered, micromanaging his son’s career and refusing to retreat an inch. In a story written by Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz, he admitted he was too hard on his son, even if his intentions were good, and Hunter recalled how his dad would “throw his arms up and stomp around” when he hit a bad shot. He bonded on the road with Sean O’Hair, another player with an overbearing father.

This, unfortunately, is a textbook story in the golf world, and it almost always ends in player burnout. It’s a testament to how much Hunter shared the same goals, if not the same approach, that he did not.

He first beat his dad at age 12, and a year later the family moved to the Dallas area. There, Hunter’s junior career took off. In 1999, he won a Texas 5A state championship, earned AJGA Player of the Year status, won the prestigious U.S. Junior Amateur against future pro Camillo Villegas, and became the no. 1 junior player in the world. A recruiting battle ensued, and Mahan eventually chose USC—a shock to Oklahoma State, considered the frontrunners—where he was named Pac-10 freshman of the year.

Still, he wasn’t happy. His game was solid, but he was angry and overly self-critical on the course. Nor was the pressure from his father ebbing. The spring of his freshman year, playing at a tournament called The Maxwell in Oklahoma run by the AJGA, Monte approached him after his tee shot on the tenth and kept repeating, “Son, you just got to set it and go. Set it and go.”

Any kind of coaching during a round is a violation, and the tournament director, a rookie, called Stephen Hamblin and told him what had happened. Hamblin came out to the course, found Monte, and told him he’d be docking Hunter two strokes for receiving advice. He took the penalty in stride, but the telling detail here is that after the round, Hamblin was approached USC coach Kurt Schuette, who thanked him for issuing the penalty; he hoped it might help him deal with Monte in the future. Schuette wasn’t alone; Kevin Stadler, Mahan’s teammate, also found Hamblin after the round.

“Thank God someone finally did it,” he said.

At the end of that year, Mahan transferred from USC to Oklahoma State in order to play under legendary coach Mike Holder. Mike McGraw, an assistant who would later take over the program and coach Rickie Fowler, saw where Mahan’s desire threatened to overwhelm him. The emotion ate him up, and hurt his game. What McGraw saw was an immensely talented 19-year-old who was tired of himself and tired of the game. Early on, Holder, an imposing man in both personality and size, took Hunter aside and explained an important point: Fewer people care about your golf than you think. You care. Your parents care. I care a little, but I’ll survive without you. Your teammates care, but deep down they all want to beat you. That’s it. So stop playing like everybody cares, and just go out and play golf.

Holder didn’t suffer fools, and he was able to bring both Monte and Hunter in line. His personal gravitas allowed him to take the authoritative approach, and his record didn’t hurt either—he would retire in 2005 with eight national titles, 12 players of the year, 112 All-Americans. It worked­—Mahan’s on-course antics, including the destructive anger, was tamped down, and he held his player accountable for his actions. There was nothing indirect about Holder’s approach; he wouldn’t need an AJGA official to do his dirty work for him.

Holder told Mahan that he had to give the illusion of being in control, and that even if he felt himself in turmoil, he had to fake it on the outside. He explained in blunt terms that if Mahan failed to solve his problem, he’d never have the career he wanted in golf.

Holder’s leadership had the intended effect—Mahan gave Oklahoma State two great years, finishing as a first team All-American and Big 12 player of the year in 2002 and 2003, and even became a leader himself, albeit the quiet, follow-my-example kind. He turned pro in ’03, and after making four cuts in eight events after the U.S. Open, he finished 16th at Q-School in December to earn his PGA Tour card.

He finished second at the Reno-Tahoe Open in 2004 and managed to keep his card by finishing 100th on the money list, but 2005’s 131st place finish dropped him below the threshold, and he was forced to survive Q-School again in order to get back on the Tour in 2006. He passed, and his position improved in 2006 due to a t-2 at the Buick Open, but he was floundering in his game and losing the perspective he had gained at Oklahoma State.

“I put so much into it every day,” he told me of those three years. “I put way too much pressure on myself and I tried way too hard. But I didn’t feel like I was building myself to be great…I was just trying to patch things together and get the quick fix. When I got on Tour I thought it was going to be easier, and I felt like I was going to play better. It was too big for me.”

He had worked himself so hard that friendships and romantic relationships had been sacrificed, and he wasn’t seeing the dividends. His fellow pros would routinely tell him how good he was, and how a breakthrough would happen for him soon, but he couldn’t see it and he didn’t believe it. The way he described his emotions at that time sounds a lot like depression—even the good shots didn’t give him pleasure, and the bad shots just reinforced his belief that he wasn’t good enough. Finally, in a 2007 U.S. Open sectional qualifier, a sports psychologist named Neale Smith who was caddying for him got so fed up with his negative energy that he forced Mahan to fist pump after every shot. It felt stupid to him, but he obliged, almost desperate to find something that would jolt him out of his funk. After opening with a 73, he followed with a 63, breaking the course record and earning his way into the major.

He finished tied for 13th at the U.S. Open, and a week later, at the Travelers Championship, he opened with a 62 and closed with a 65 to earn his way into a playoff with Jim Williamson. He birdied the first extra hole, and almost without warning his long drought was over—he’d won a PGA Tour event. Three top tens followed, including a t-6 at the British Open, and at the end of the year Jack Nicklaus made him a captain’s pick at the President’s Cup, which the United States won.

It’s hard to fathom how a few shows of fake enthusiasm could completely turn his season—and career—around, but the revelation went deeper. For the first time, he truly began to appreciate the idea that he didn’t have to be perfect to succeed, and that when the golfers he admired won tournaments, they weren’t perfect either. Speaking with young players throughout the year, I came across this idea again and again, beginning with Chris Kirk in November—perfection isn’t possible, or necessary, and anyone who pursues perfection is going to burn himself out. All of Mahan’s hours on the range, he realized, had been counterproductive; he was overworked to the point that he had stopped trusting himself and his instincts. It’s hard lesson to learn, because most golfers are workaholics, and at the first sign of struggle every fiber of their being screams, “Work harder!” Some never learn, and they play themselves right into obscurity. For those who finally have their epiphany, though, the turnaround can be drastic.

It’s also hard to ignore something else that happened in 2007–finally, 25 years after his son’s birth, Monte Mahan backed off. It’s not clear whether it was his choice, or whether Hunter, in conjunction with his team, told him the time had come. In either case, Hunter found a new freedom, and a year later, Monte moved back to southern California.

He didn’t win again in 2008, but he did earn $2.2 million with a consistent season, which was good enough for a captain’s spot on the Ryder Cup team at Valhalla. As he had done at the U.S. Junior Amateur and the U.S. Amateur, Mahan proved his excellence at match play golf. Teaming with Justin Leonard and Phil Mickelson, he won two matches on Friday, earned two halves on Saturday, and halved Paul Casey in Sunday singles to earn 3.5 points in one of the rare American Ryder Cup wins of the past two decades.

He made almost $3 million in 2009, won another President’s Cup, and followed it up in 2010 by returning to the winner’s circle at the Phoenix Open and then again at the Bridgestone Invitational, a World Golf Championship event featuring 75 of the best players in the world. His 10th place finish on the money list was a career best, and heading into the 2010 Ryder Cup, his career had reached a high point.

At Celtic Manor in Wales, though, the Europeans had recovered from the Valhalla disaster and the lackluster leadership of their 2008 captain, Nick Faldo. Rain hampered the schedule in Wales, and when Sunday came to an end, the U.S. trailed 9.5—6.5 after a disastrous third session. For the first time in Ryder Cup history, the singles matches would be held on a Monday. A spirited comeback by the Americans, which included victories by Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Dustin Johnson, evened the score at 13.5 points with just one match on the course: Hunter Mahan vs. Graeme McDowell.

With a half point, the Americans would tie and retain the cup. Coming into the 16th hole, McDowell was 1-up as he stared down his approach shot from the fairway. With a 6-iron, he landed the ball on the left side of the green and watched it trickle toward the flag. The fans erupted as it got closer, but he’d left himself about 15 feet for his birdie. After an excellent chip from off the green, Mahan gave himself a good look at par. He waited, watching McDowell, who took his time reading the putt. When he finally struck the ball, it trickled downhill, broke to the right, and caught the edge of the hole. The crowd erupted, McDowell screamed back at them, and Mahan needed to win the final two holes for the U.S. to retain the cup.

On 17, needing a win, he found himself off the green with an easy chip to the hole. The tension was excruciating, and players from both teams looked on in front of the massive Welsh crowd. The chip needed to be perfect. Unthinkably, Mahan flubbed it. The ball barely trickled onto the green, leaving him with a long putt just to make par. McDowell ran his own birdie putt up to five feet, and when Mahan missed the twisting par putt, he took off his hat and offered his hand to McDowell. The Europeans had won back the Cup.

For Mahan, it became a defining moment, and the one by which most casual golf fans identified him. It didn’t matter that he’d been incredibly successful in match play, or that he’d go on to win one title and 11 straight matches at the Accenture Match Play championship—the missed chip was the choke that lost the Americans the Cup.

“You can call it embarrassing if you want,” Mahan told me (for the record, I hadn’t), “because it felt like that. But it’s hard to say that’s a bad moment because I was playing in the Ryder Cup in the last group and had a chance to win, and to be in those moments is pretty fun.”

It sounds like good perspective, but the truth of the matter was made clear in the post-match press conference, when Mahan sat with his teammates and tried to face the media. He’s not a particularly emotional person when it comes to the press, nor a tremendously friendly one—everything takes on the same flat affect, delivered with narrow eyes and a thin smirk. Which made it so surprising when he could only get through half of his answer.

“I’m proud to be part of this team,” he began. “It’s a close team. And, uh…”

He stared at the microphone, unable to continue. When the tears began to fall, he rubbed at his eye with a thumb while Phil Mickelson took the microphone and saved him. Later, he tried again, talking about his birdie on 15 to narrow the deficit, but again words failed him, and a slight whimper came out instead. Zach Johnson patted him on the back, Mahan took a sip of water, and started to sob.

He remained in the top 15 of the money list over the next two seasons, winning the Shell Houston Open and the Accenture Match Play Championship in ’12. He defeated Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy at the Accenture, and came back the next year to take down Kaymer and Ian Poulter on the way to making the finals, where he finally lost to Matt Kuchar. It was almost like he was conducting a one-man Ryder Cup revenge tour, but he knew as well as anyone that the stakes weren’t the same.

In 2011, he married Kandi, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Two years later, he started the RBC Canadian Open with a 67-64, taking a lead after two rounds. That’s when the word came from Texas: His wife was going into labor. He withdrew on Saturday, flew home, and was there on Sunday morning to see the birth of Zoe, his daughter.

He earned more than $3 million again that season, but coming into 2014, it had been almost two years since his last win. When we spoke, he identified that as his main goal. And what else? He loves cars, and watching sports, and being away from golf when he needs to clear his brain. Something I asked him reminded of a question he’d heard the other day, the old one about which people, alive or dead, would make up your ideal foursome. He chose Jay-Z, Tom Brady, and Duane Johnson (aka “The Rock”)—three men who, in his mind, came from nothing to be wildly successful. Something about people who overcome serious obstacles, the kind he never faced, strikes him as powerful.


Like Day and Furyk, Mahan hadn’t had the best luck on Sunday, and his own winning drought extended back to April 2012, with endless close calls that came up short. If that dry stretch bothered him in New Jersey, though, he didn’t show it—instead, he began to light up the scoreboard. While Furyk slowed to an agonizing pace, as he always did under pressure, backing off putts and reading greens obsessively, Mahan moved full speed head, knocking in a 27-foot at the lengthy 13th moved him to 12-under. At the par-3 15th, he hit his approach to 11 feet and converted another birdie, and followed that up with a monster 336-yard drive on 16, which left him a short wedge into the pin. That shot stopped three feet away, and he was now at -14, well ahead of the field.

Behind him, as Furyk and Day waited to tee off on 15, a pair of drunks in a golf cart managed to hit a spectator, who went down with an ugly crunching sound and began screaming. The lush in the passenger seat fell off and was quickly tackled by a cop, who handcuffed him on the crowd. The driver took off up a hill, and though another cop chased him on foot, the incline saved the getaway attempt, and he was able to make a temporary escape as the cop lost his breath and had to slow down. It was only a momentary reprieve, though, as two marshals in a cart of their own took off in hot pursuit. His captured friend made some moaning complaint on the ground, and the detective gave a caustic Jersey laugh. “You’re embarrassed now?” he asked.

The delay couldn’t have helped Day or Furyk, but it scarcely mattered. On 17, still red-hot and in the shadow of the sky-high tulip trees on the right side of the fairway, Mahan laid up on the long par-5 and put his third shot 22 feet from the hole. Looking fierce in his sunglasses and flat-billed cap, he marched up to the green and drained the putt to give himself a three-shot lead on the field. Nothing could stop him now—not even the very strange fan on 18 who held a stuffed Geico lizard and wouldn’t stop yelling, “it’s the Geico Gecco for Morgan Hoffmann!” as he thrust the animal at Mahan’s young playing partner, a New Jersey native. He had to pitch out from the rough, but a bogey was good enough to win going away—his five birdies in a seven-hole stretch had crushed the field.

Mahan’s interviews went about as expected—with his slight nasal twang, you got the sense that he might have been a bit nerdy as a kid, despite the manly stoicism he evinced on the course. He seemed to vaguely resent the media, and gave answers that were calculated and boring, with the word “obviously” making an appearance in just about every sentence, and very rarely in the right context. Nevertheless, it was a big moment—he shot up to the top of the FedEx Cup standings, and gave Tom Watson a good reason to make him a Ryder Cup captain’s pick a week down the line.

Outside, as the crowds began to filter out, New Jersey got in one last parting shot before the Tour left for another year. A fan spotted Mahan holding his young daughter, and made what has to be the most bizarre request I’d heard all year:

“Can I sign your baby?”

(Excerpted from the original manuscript of Slaying the Tiger.)

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Slaying the Tiger Bonus Material: Rory vs. Kirk at the Deutsche Bank

Hey pals, this is bonus material from my original manuscript of the book Slaying the Tiger. This text didn’t find its way into the book, but I’m making it available to you, my loyal readers. TBR is the only place you’ll find this material.  If you like this, you’ll find plenty more to like in the book, available at this link. 


The FedEx Cup Playoffs, Part Three: Rory vs. Kirk

Then it was off to Norton, MA, and TPC Boston for the Deutsche Bank Championship. The course has a very secluded, pastoral feel, with quaint ponds and stone walls running throughout the course, and a collection of “chocolate drop mounds”—an odd duck among architectural features, and one that has fallen far out of fashion in modern course design. The earth-covered hillocks hearken back to a time when debris was cleared off early golf courses and shoveled into a pile, then covered with grass as an alternative to actually clearing it away. Later architects created artificial mounds to mimic this look, but it never became very popular, and it’s rare to find these man-made “chocolate drops” today.

With Ryder Cup captain’s picks set to be announced on Tuesday—the Deutsche Bank runs from Friday to Monday, ending on Labor Day—the Ryder Cup dominated the early week chatter. I saw Brendon Todd early that week at the Deutsche Bank, and I told him that I was in the process of writing an article about how he should be a captain’s pick because of his skill around the green. He thanked me, and I decided to take a risk.

“I think it’s going to have a huge influence on Tom Watson,” I said.

Most golfers would have already tuned me out, and the ones that didn’t would have heard that sentence and stared at me like I had three heads; self-deprecation isn’t a part of their world. Todd got the joke immediately, though—another reason to like him.

Most of the Ryder Cup drama centered on the Americans. Ryan Palmer shot an opening round 63 to shoot to the top of the leaderboard and throw his hat more fully into the ring. Keegan Bradley put up a 65, which looked it would solidify his spot, and Webb Simpson made a strong case with a 66.

Come Saturday, though, all three faded down the leaderboard, and were replaced by three other golfers who posted 66—Russell Henley, Billy Horschel, and Chris Kirk. This shift came as a big surprise for both Henley and Kirk—Henley could only shake his head and say, “it seems like the harder I try, the harder it is,” while Kirk had been so frustrated after his first round 73 that he told his caddie he wasn’t having any fun, and left the course without bothering to hit the range. Instead, he went to play putt-putt with his kids.

I followed Kirk and McIlroy on Sunday, and watched as the American made an important chip-in on the 17th hole to stem some of Rory’s typical late momentum, and nearly hole an eagle putt on the par-5 18th to end the day. He and Rory each finished with blistering 64s, and would be paired together again in the second-to-last group for Monday’s final round, two shots off the lead. Behind them, Russell Henley led the field at -12, and would play with Billy Horschel (-11), a hyperactive young Florida alum whose only career win came at the 2013 Zurich Classic, where he shot a final round 64 to win by a stroke.

For all three, a win would give them a great opportunity to snag one of Watson’s captain’s picks. Horschel made his case on Saturday night, saying that he could bring emotion and energy to a team that might be different than what they had among the nine automatic picks. He said he’d be “ecstatic” if Watson picked him. Henley was more measured, having come off a frustrating summer that let him feeling like he didn’t deserve a chance, but he allowed that it would be a “great thing” if he could win on Sunday and get a captain’s pick.

Chris Kirk, though, was in full stubborn mode, refusing to admit that it mattered to him at all.

“I would say I would love to make it, and love to have a good round here,” he said, “but no, if I deserved to make the team, then I’d already be on the team…I’m just really hoping that I’ll make the team on points next time…I just think that we’re not really as worried about it as you all wish we were. I’m not, anyway.”

It was hard to tell if he was being honest—and was therefore the only American golfer who wasn’t dying to play in the Ryder Cup—or if this was some variation on the stubbornness theme that Georgia coach Chris Haack had clued me into when we spoke. The only real insight I got from Kirk came at the tail end of our conversation, when I asked if it was annoying to be constantly asked about the Ryder Cup.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’d be a better story if I was like Keegan, and was freaking out about it and really, really excited and going nuts, but I’m just not.”

He gave me a little grin at that point, and finally, I thought, I understood—he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having to campaign for himself. It fit right in with his personality—his stoic demeanor wouldn’t allow for false shows of enthusiasm. He barely even fist-pumped in competitive rounds, and he would never adopt the over-the-top showmanship of Keegan Bradley. Chris Haack endorsed this view when I spoke to him, saying that Kirk most likely found the idea of self-promotion unseemly, and made a choice to take the exact opposite approach—play golf, and trust that the results would speak for themselves. If Watson wanted to pick him, then great, but he wasn’t going to do backflips for him, since it wouldn’t matter anyway.

The unfortunate problem: Watson was looking for backflips. He wanted golfers who felt passionate about the Ryder Cup, and Kirk’s aloof posture couldn’t have gone over well with him. The two had played together in a practice round at the British Open, and when Kirk struggled on the front nine—he still had jet lag from his flight—Watson got on his back a little, and they won their match at the end. Whether Kirk appreciated the pep talk is more doubtful—he’s a self-motivator, and not the kind of person who searches for mentors. Even agreeing to play with Watson as a sort of audition probably rubbed him the wrong way, and the two hadn’t spoken since.

Making matters worse, Watson had an ego, and very much wanted players who would be excited to play for him. He saw himself as a general—tough but inspiring, harsh but well-loved—and to say he wanted a cult of worship would be too strong, but he did appreciate players like Bradley who would say the right things, and flatter his John Wayne-esque self-image. He wanted eager, loyal soldiers, and Kirk was a natural-born mercenary who adamantly refused to move even an inch toward Watson, much less to suck up or beg. The ring was extended, but Kirk wouldn’t kiss it.

That night, the personality clash could not have been more evident. Still, even though Kirk could be cold and stand-offish and probably didn’t think much of the media, I liked him, and I knew that he’d be excellent at the Ryder Cup—nor did I believe, for a second, that he was really so ambivalent about the event as he let on. I hoped that if he won on Monday, he’d overcome his stubborn streak and tell Watson what he wanted to hear. Wouldn’t it be worth it, for one day, in order to make the team?


On paper, playing with McIlroy for a second straight day seemed like a tall order for Kirk. His year had gone well enough after his win at the McGladrey, but his only other top tens came at the Sony Open and the Memorial, and now he was up against the no. 1 player in the world and the winner of the last two major championships. Unlike everyone else McIlroy had faced on Sundays that year, though, Kirk had the kind of personality that wouldn’t wither in the face of Rory’s ferocity and talent. In fact, it was the kind of challenge that was perfectly suited to Kirk’s rigid self-belief. He may not be able to promote himself in front of the cameras, but he wouldn’t crack just because the man across the tee box happened to be the best golfer on the planet. You could even see his refusal to budge in the way he answered questions about Rory on Saturday night:

Q. When you’re playing with Rory, you have to be on top of your game?

CHRIS KIRK: I try to play well every day. But I definitely enjoy playing with him. He’s a guy I’ve known for quite a while and been good friends with and he’s a very enjoyable guy to play with.

It was a brilliant approach, I thought. Rory didn’t impress him enough to change his game in any way, and not only was he not intimidated, but he was so up for it that he was going to have fun. Thinking back to Rory’s previous opponents, like Sergio and Rickie, it was clear to see that he’d face a different kind of challenge at the Deutsche Bank. He’d have to win by talent alone—Kirk wouldn’t fold. That still gave Rory the advantage, since he’s the most talented golfer in the world, but if he started slow, like at Valhalla, Kirk wouldn’t let him off the mat so easily.

There is very little glamor to Kirk’s personal life, past or present, and he doesn’t try to hide it—when asked what he had done between the third and fourth rounds, he told a tale of domestic headaches. For one, his two-year-old boy Sawyer was having temper tantrums, and then his wife had to get their 8-month-old son Foster to sleep. The next morning, his son acted up again when he had to pack up the toys in the toy bin for the upcoming travel—always the hardest part of every week. It gave him very little time to reflect on the upcoming duel with Rory McIlroy, which was probably a bonus, as less time to think meant less time to worry. Still, it was hard not to laugh at the contrast of his own personal life with Rory’s jet-setting, night club lifestyle.

Come Monday, Rory missed two birdie putts by mere inches on the first two holes, and Kirk had to rescue himself with an 8-foot par putt on the second after misjudging a wedge into the par-5 green. Kirk could feel the nerves moving through him, and he told me later that making the par putt might have been the most important shot of his round. Even the simple benefit of having a good feeling with his putter calmed him down, and filled him with a confidence that he was missing on the first tee.

On the par-3 third, he kept the momentum going with a 6-iron to five feet, setting up his first birdie of the day and putting him a shot up on Rory. Separately, they walked the long, wooded path between holes, and Kirk sipped water and had a muted conversation with his caddie about golf course design. “How do you see holes, standing in this shit?” he asked rhetorically, to which the caddie grunted a reply. The quiet looper was jut one of the rotating pool of caddies that Kirk keeps, refusing to stick with just one for any set length of time due to his “self-sufficiency” and, as he told Golf Week in November, not wanting to blame anyone but himself.

On the tee at the driveable par-4, Rory and Kirk chatted amiably, which was strange on both sides—Kirk isn’t talkative by nature, and Rory usually gives his playing partners the silent treatment, especially during the final round. Kirk took driver and came up short, and Rory hit 15 yards farther with his 3-wood, which showcased the difference in length between the two that would become a recurring them all day. While Rory made an easy birdie, Kirk had to land his pitch from off the green on the first cut to make sure it didn’t run by the hole, and he did well just to give himself eight feet for birdie. He holed it, and put the pressure on Rory, who sunk his own from inside five feet.

Rory made the first mistake of the round on the fifth hole when, after out-driving Kirk by 50 yards, he pushed his approach right and hit a weak chip to make bogey. He hit his drive on the sixth hole into a fairway bunker, and compounded the error by hitting his next shot straight into the lip. He was forced to chip sideways then, and did well to go up-and-down from 175 yards for another bogey, but he had dropped two shots, and he threw his ball in a nearby pond in frustration.

Kirk now trailed Henley by just a shot—another Georgia duel in the making—and Rory had fallen behind those two and Billy Horschel. He fought back with two birdies on seven and eight, but Kirk rescued himself with a terrific shot from a short-side bunker on eight, and an aggressive 7-iron on the ninth to the back left pin set him up for his third birdie of the day. By the time they hit the turn, Henley had dropped a shot, and Kirk was now tied for the lead with Horschel at -13.

The muggy heat intensified on the back nine, and Kirk gained a fan who wouldn’t stop yelling “Captain Kirk!” after each shot. Rory, who out-drove him on every hole and hit high, looping irons with that beautiful, liquid swing, looked like the better golfer—especially when you watched Kirk’s rigid, paint-by-numbers swing, and the blank, almost robotic look in his eyes. He still had the back nine left, and everyone knew that’s where he’d make his move. Still, nothing seemed to faze Kirk.

On the 10th, he hit a perfect chip to stave off a potential bogey, and reached the green on the long par-3 11th with a hybrid to set up a long two-putt. By the time he made par on no. 12, Rory had missed par putts of eight and three feet to start the back nine, and suddenly he had dropped to -9. Without a miracle, it seemed like he’d fallen out of contention. On 13, Kirk mishit his second shot—a “drop-kick,” where the club hits the ground in front of the ball, but bounces up before impact to turn a fat shot into a thin one—but got lucky when it carried the bunker and rolled onto the green anyway. From there, he stared down a 23-footer and sunk it for birdie to reach -14. He held the lead now, one ahead of Geoff Ogilvy, who had made six birdies on the day, and Billy Horschel, playing steady but unspectacular golf in the final group.

From there, Kirk had to pass a series of tests. He pushed his drive into the right rough on 14, but hit a beautiful approach from a thick lie to carry a cross bunker and reach the green. It was the riskiest shot he hit all day, and also his best—the solid contact kept him away from the sand, which would likely have meant bogey or worse.

By this point, Rory had grown frustrated with his round, and when his short approach on the 15th landed an unsatisfying 16 feet away, he threw his wedge at his bag. Meanwhile, Kirk, was like a metronome, hitting shot after shot like clockwork and showing very little emotion in the process. He holed another long putt for par on 15, and made a 13-footer for birdie on the par-3 16th after Rory nearly made a hole-in-one. On that putt, a memory from an earlier round came back to him, and he realized before he hit that the ball broke away from the water on the left of the hole, which allowed him to take the proper line.

He found the right rough on 17, and his ball landed in an old divot, but he dug it out to reach the green with an easy par, and came into the 18th with a one-shot lead on Horschel, who had birdied 15. On the par-5, Kirk nearly made a monumental error when his lay-up kicked off a ridge and came close to landing in a small pot bunker in the fairway—the only one for miles around—but it held up in the rough. He still faced a dicey shot, but he landed his short approach two feet onto the green and watched it tunnel toward the hole. He left himself 10 feet for birdie, and again he remembered was something strange about the putt. This time, his memory failed him—he thought the putt broke less than it looked, and so he aimed almost straight, but in fact it broke more, and his birdie attempt swung well wide of the hole.

He made par for a bogey-free 66 and headed for the scoring tent, where his wife met him with his sons. “I have to go talk to the man, okay?” he told Sawyer in a gentle voice when the tv cameras beckoned, and the boy cried as he was passed back to his mother. In the hallway outside the scoring room, Rory McIlroy saw his assistant Sean O’Flaherty—a few sprigs of chest hair popping through the neck of the plaid shirt that matched his pastel pants, sunglasses hung backward around his neck, hair caked with gel—and grinned. “Fuckkkk,” he said, letting the word hang in the air. “So bad.”

Out on the 18th hole, still trailing by a shot, Billy Horschel bombed his drive 318 yards down the right side of the fairway. From there, he watched Kirk miss his birdie putt, and turned to his caddie Micah Fuggitt.

“I’m going to hit this on the green, I’m going to make eagle, and we’re going to win the tournament,” he said.

He took dead aim with his 6-iron from 211 yards away. Deep down, he understood that this shot gave him not only a chance to win the tournament, but to make the Ryder Cup team—unlike Kirk, he had exactly the kind of energy that Watson coveted. The ball was below his feet, but on an uphill lie relative to the hole, and before he hit, Horschel reminded himself “stay in the golf shot”—not to rise too soon and risk sending it right.

It was a sound piece of strategy, but as it turned out, he overcompensated, and caught the ball very fat. It rose up in the air, and Horschel immediately knew it was his worst shot of the day—a total chunk. When it came down, it landed in the thick native area guarding the front of the green, from which no recovery was possible. He took the penalty drop, made bogey, and finished in a three-way tie for second.

Horschel had always struggled with his anger, and after conquering his emotions for most of 2013, they had started to creep up and get the better of him in the past few months. I’d watched him kick a trash can with fury in Greensboro, and when he came into the scoring room after his chunked 6-iron, and heard from Tom Alter that he had dropped in the FedEx Cup standings because of the bogey, he let out an anguished scream and punched his own hand. Horschel’s rage is the kind that looks very frightening up close, and Alter briefly wondered if he might hurt himself by punching a wall.

He didn’t—he collected himself in time to talk to reporters, and all he could say was that he hit the ball well all day, that he believed in himself standing over the 6-iron, and that hopefully he could get a win next week.


Which left Chris Kirk, and the possibility of that captain’s pick. Would he advocate for himself, now that he’d won?

No chance. Doug Ferguson and I did our best to probe beyond the stubborn silence, but he just reiterated that the event didn’t mean as much to him as the other players.

“I’m not going to really base how happy I am with how I’m playing or how my year has gone on whether I make the team or not,” he said. “Obviously I would love to do it. I would love to maybe be making a bigger deal out of it than I am, but that’s just honestly how I feel.”

Ferguson gave it one last shot, hoping against hope that he might get some indication that it mattered to Kirk.

Q. You talked outside and you spoke well about not being entitled and if it happens, great. And if it’s not, look what you’ve done this week which is great in itself. Is there any part of you that’s a little bit antsy about a phone ringing with news one way or the other?


Q. If not, can you make something up for us?

CHRIS KIRK: Like I said, I wish that I was a little bit more excited or freaking out about it, but, you know, I mean I don’t really know what else to say. I’d love to do it, but, I don’t know, I’m not worried. It’s not like there’s anything that I can do to sway it one way or another. I can’t say, hey, Tom, please, please pick me now. I don’t think that’s going to change his mind a whole lot. I think he’s probably got a pretty good idea of what he wants to do regardless of what I want to do.

And so, with a potential chance to talk his way onto the team, golf’s most stubborn player stuck to his guns, and left the course without compromise. Back at home, two-year-old Sawyer realized his dad had won, and though the concept was still abstract to him, he could pick up on the excitement. And when he got excited, that meant Foster would too, and soon both boys were wired. Kirk had to fly to Denver the next morning, and it would be a long time before he could get his sons to sleep that night. If you had seen him at that moment—this slim, slightly nerdy figure struggling to wrangle two young boys—you’d never guess that he’d just spent two days playing alongside the best golfer in the world. And it wouldn’t have crossed your mind, in a million years, that he actually won.

(Excerpted from the original manuscript of Slaying the Tiger.)

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Friends of Tiger, Episode 21: PGA Teaching Pro Joe May

This show was recorded LIVE at DSI Comedy Theater in Chapel Hill, NC. Joe May is the head pro at Hillandale Golf Course at Durham—and my teacher!—and we talk about his life in golf, and what it’s like to teach people this crazy game for a living.

For more stories from the PGA Tour, order my book, Slaying the Tiger, here.


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Download the mp3 of this episode here.

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