July 26, 2013

MacGregor: Hunter Mahan’s Canadian Connection

AUGUSTA – They are Team Canada – and they had a pretty fair day Saturday at the Masters Golf Tournament.


So, too, did a 29-year-old Californian out of Dallas, the highest-ranked American golfer in the world who, if he doesn’t watch out, will soon be tagging an “eh” onto his sentences and demanding maple syrup at his clubhouse breakfasts.


Given that Canada’s sole entry in this year’s Masters, 2003 champion Mike Weir, failed to make the weekend cut after shooting 72-79 for a 151 total, Canadians were left to embrace Mahan and his ever-expanding Team Canada of coaches and medical experts as the country’s surrogate representative.


Mahan hugged right back, with a sparkling four-under-par 68 that left him with striking distance of a green jacket, even if five strokes off the surprising lead set by Sweden’s Peter Hanson. One stroke back at eight-under, after a sensational eagle on the 13th hole, was three-time champion Phil Mickelson following an impressive 66. South African Louis Oosthuizen was seven-under, American Bubba Watson six-under, fellow American Matt Kuchar five-under, while Mahan led a small group at four-under.


Mahan was quick to credit his fine round to swing coach, Sean Foley of Burlington, Ont. – who also coaches Tiger Woods, also out of contention at 3-over – with the vast improvement in his game that has already made him the only two-time winner on the PGA Tour in 2012.


“Sean is a very smart guy,” Mahan said after he putted out on the 18th, “and he knows how to teach.”


Foley, however, is hardly the only Canadian connection to this success story. Mahan’s agent, Chris Armstrong, his physiotherapist Craig Davis and his personal sports psychologist, Jim Murphy, are all from Canada.


“I like Canadians for some reason,” Mahan said at a recent stop on the PGA Tour. “I don’t know why. Surrounded by them.”


Most recent to join the Mahan team is Murphy, a Vancouver-based psychological coach whose bestselling book, Inner Excellence: Achieve Extraordinary Business Success through Mental Toughness, was recommended to Foley. Foley was so impressed, he then recommended Murphy to Mahan.


Murphy is also working with Swede Henrik Stenson, who joined Mahan at four-under par after three rounds.


“What Jim does,” says Foley, “is more about life than golf.”


Mahan, once known for his intensity on the course, says that Murphy has helped him learn not “to make golf as important as it used to be. I don’t want a missed chip to ruin my day.”


Murphy, 45, is himself a former athlete. Now a Canadian citizen, the Maryland native was a star baseball player, drafted in 1988 by the Chicago Cubs. When it was discovered he had a vision problem – as an outfielder, he could not properly track fly balls – he stopped playing and returned to school, eventually ending up at the University of British Columbia, where he played football and studied coaching science. He is not himself a golfer.


Murphy set out to make himself an expert on how certain athletes are able to find poise under enormous pressures. His initial interest was in the Olympian who will practice for four years and be expected to perform his or her best in an event that might run less than 60 seconds.


His intention was to apply such research to baseball, a game with pockets of time peppered with intense, high-pressure moments. He moved to Arizona and found some success working with professional baseball players. He thought, at the same time, he would “put together a little manual for players on how to perform under pressure.”


He imagined his planned project would take a few weeks. It took five years. He became, he concedes, obsessive about the subject, virtually holing up, without so much as a television for diversion, and devoting himself entirely to the study.


“I put everything aside,” he says.


The result was the book, and the result of the book was the connection with Foley and, ultimately, professional golf.


“I started to realize that this is far more than about baseball,” he says, “that it applies to every sport. We all want essentially the same things, and we all face the same challenges.”


The challenges of golf, however, can be easily intensified. He found athletes who play golf at the highest levels have to be very strong mentally. “You have to be,” he says, “because golf is so filled with adversity. If you react to every shot, it’s going to be tough for you to have consistency.”


He now believes golf has challenges that are, well, unique to the sport and its athletes. “Golf is so amazing,” he says, “because there is so much time to think about what you are doing, and the more time that you have to think about it, the more of a chance your mind can get in the way. They’re out there playing for four, four-and-one-half hours and they’re actually only playing the ball for maybe three or four minutes, so you’ve got four hours of time for your mind to get in the way.”


And it is what that mind does to golfers that sometimes trips them up. Golfers are constantly thinking about what is coming – a significant cause of fear – and are also constantly reaching back to recall what they did on a previous occasion from the same spot in similar conditions.


“Having a mind that constantly lives in the past or the future is one of the biggest obstacles that any golfer faces,” he says. “There’s only a few times when you want to go to the future because you want to be able to visualize and plan. And also you want to go to the past to learn and review great memories. So you do want to be in the past and the future, but most of us spend 90 per cent of our time in the past and in the future, and 10 per cent in present.


“The ideal, however, is the exact opposite.”


The more he can get his players to spend the vast majority of their time in the moment, and far less dwelling on the past or fearing the future, the more success he believes they will have.


And on this day, Hunter Mahan, honorary Canadian, took every advantage of the moment.


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