It has taken three years, a stretch of time when their career arcs crisscrossed, when their successes and failures were dissected like frogs in a high school biology class, when they seemed to share little except the same swing coach.
Such is the way things have gone for Hunter Mahan and Tiger Woods since the final round of the 2009 AT&T National.
The last time the tournament was held here at Congressional Country Club, Woods appeared invincible, recovered from a serious knee injury and in the midst of another dominating season. Woods raised the trophy on the 18th green after finishing one shot ahead of an up-and-coming Mahan.
Mahan, who turned 30 last month, will be trying to finish what he started that day, when his 9-under par 62 left him with a course record but little else. Woods, meanwhile, hopes to continue the revival of his once-storied career with another comeback win this weekend.
After what transpired in the triple-digit temperature and even higher heat index Friday, Mahan might have the easier task. His 6-under par 65 gave him a two-round total of 7-under 135, two strokes clear of the field and five ahead of Woods.
“At the beginning of the week, we thought double-digits [under par] was going to be awesome,” Mahan said after finishing an afternoon round that saw temperatures reach 100 degrees with a heat index of 109. “If you got to double-digits you were going to be pretty excited, and it seems like it’s kind of that pace and it might fall a bit short I’m guessing. This is a tough place to play.”
Asked what he remembers about the final round of the tournament three years ago, Mahan said, “I was excited when I shot 62. I thought it was a heck of a round. I tried to stay ready if there was a playoff, but I wasn’t disappointed at all that I lost by one. It was a lot better position than when I started the day. Not at all frustrated. I was very proud of the way I played.”
Under the tutelage of Sean Foley — the same coach Woods now employs — Mahan’s career has grown considerably since.
Having won his first PGA Tour event in 2007, Mahan was in the midst of a nearly three-year drought that ended when he won twice in 2010. Mahan added two wins this year, and is the tour’s only two-time champion this season along with Woods and Jason Duffner.
But Mahan knows this weekend, given the high temperatures and humidity expected to continue, will not be easy. Though the three players immediately behind him — Robert Garrigus, Brendon de Jonge of Zimbabwe and Jimmy Walker — have combined for only one win in 563 career starts, Mahan can see that Woods and others with major championships on their resumes are looming.
Three-time major champion Vijay Singh, who is 49 and hasn’t won a tour event in four years, as well as Stewart Cink, who hasn’t done much since winning the 2009 British Open in a playoff over Tom Watson, are three strokes behind at 138. Woods is tied with three others — Bo Van Pelt, Charley Hoffman and Australia’s Marc Leishman, who won last week at the Travelers Championship — at 140.
And then there is the combination of the suffocating heat and a course that is playing even more difficult than it did for last year’sU.S. Open.
“Golf is a challenge and when the conditions and the weather come into play, it’s a whole other factor,” Mahan said. “Mentally, once your mind goes, the body is going with it. So it’s very important to be mentally strong. That’s why guys work out all the time and try to keep our bodies in shape for days like this when it’s something that can really beat you down. We still have two more days of it.”
Woods certainly looks to be in top physical condition again, and the game that left him amid career-threatening injuries and off-course personal problems is slowly returning. But like the millions of mere mortals that play the game with sporadic results, Woods can look like a 14-time major champion one day and a 14-handicap the next.
After shooting a 1-over par 72 Thursday that looked a lot like his weekend meltdown in this year’sU.S. Openat the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Woods looked more like his legendary old self Friday.
Starting on the back nine, Woods had a three-hole stretch starting on the par-4 14th that included missing two straight fairways and then hitting 80-yard approach shots to within three and five feet of the cup before confidently making the par-saving putts. He then crushed a drive more than 300 yards down the fairway on the 579-yard par-5 15th and made a 48-foot putt for eagle to get to 1-under for the tournament.
“It’s like a [U.S.] Open, you have probably maybe one or two flags you can fire at all day, and most of the day you’re firing away from it and giving yourself 15, 20 feet all day,” Woods said. “The pars at 14 and 15 were something I needed to happen. I hit two good wedge shots in there after two poor drives and gave myself a couple of good looks, made those and then I rewarded all that hard work at the next hole with an eagle.”
Asked what the difference was in a round that was four strokes better than his previous one, Woods sounded like a golfer who couldn’t tell what he was doing right from what he was doing wrong.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It was one of those days. I was consistent most of the day. I made a couple of good par saves at 14 and 15, and I made a big putt there [for eagle] at 16. Just one of those days.”
It was one of those days for Mahan, too. The kind that was reminiscent of the one he had in the final round three years ago.
“I still give the edge to the 62 in ’09 being on Sunday and kind of posting the lead in the clubhouse,” he said.
The only thing missing was taking home the trophy, something he could change come Sunday night.