Column: Hunter Mahan overcomes tough year on and off course

Hunter Mahan didn’t see a leaderboard until only two holes were left. Any other tournament, maybe any other time in his career, three shots behind that deep into the final round would have felt like a dire situation.

This was cause for celebration.

“I saw that I was in second,” Mahan said. “And in my head I was like, ‘That’s x-amount of money, and that guarantees my card.’ I had three holes to play, but there was a lot going on in my head at that time. It was pretty draining the last couple of holes.”

He closed with a bogey on the final hole and tied for second.

This wasn’t a FedEx Cup playoff event, like the one Mahan won at Ridgewood four years ago that effectively locked up a captain’s pick for his third Ryder Cup team. It wasn’t one of the two World Golf Championships he has won.

This was the DAP Championship, the second Tour Finals event, where the biggest priority is getting back to full status in the big leagues.

He earned $88,000, roughly the equivalent of 24th place during the FedEx Cup playoffs, and moved to No. 4 on the special money list. The top 25 get full PGA Tour cards, and with only two events remaining, Mahan clinched his card.

Mahan didn’t realize until that moment that he at least had made it back to the starting line. The scope of it didn’t really hit him until Monday morning, when he was home in Dallas waiting for his wife and three young children to return from a weekend trip to Cedar Lake.

“It’s been a crazy year,” Mahan said, his voice still cracking with emotion.

He had taken a few minutes away from the phone when he first started to cry. He needed longer.

“I feel excited about golf, just moving forward,” he said. “Everything, all the work, so many people. My teacher (Chris O’Connell), my caddie (Zack Guthrie), everybody … it’s vindication for them. When I think about my family who helped me get through this year and the years before, it feels like a lot.

“I’m more happy for them than I am for me.”

It was a lot.

And golf was only part of it.

He missed the Tour Championship for the first time in 2015 and the slide began. More than anything technical was the emotional pull of being away from home. When his daughter, Hazel, was born in the summer of 2016, Mahan and wife Kandi had three children 3 and under.

And then tragedy struck his family.

His wife’s sister, Katie Enloe, was diagnosed at the start of the year with acute myeloid leukemia. The families are close. She was married to SMU golf coach Jason Enloe, one of Mahan’s best friends. After their wedding, she asked her sister, Kandi, to go on a double date with Mahan. They were married a year later.

Mahan tried to play when he could on a sponsor’s exemption or against weaker fields that had room for a six-time PGA Tour winner.

Katie Enloe died in July, leaving behind two young daughters.

So there was a reason the final few holes Sunday at Canterbury felt so draining. The hardest part of golf was starting another year without any momentum and even less confidence. The hardest part of life was losing someone so close and trying to move forward.

“I thought about the start of the year and how I was feeling good about what I was doing,” Mahan said. “I thought about Katie, my sister-in-law, and everything she went through.”

Mahan is not the first former PGA Tour to have to return to what amounts to Q-school. Chad Campbell, a four-time winner and member of three Ryder Cup teams, also is trying to earn back his card. They are not the first players to have their games desert them, whether it was Hal Sutton, Steve Stricker or David Duval.

There are no guarantees of getting back, and the road is just starting for Mahan, who at 36 has won more $30 million and who once had a world ranking that reached as high as No. 4.

The timing of it all made the moment feel bigger than it really was.

“When you get older and you’ve played for so long, you become very appreciative of the game, your life and all the people around you,” he said. “You surround yourself with people who support you and challenge you and push you. And it makes you happy for them. My life has been great. My career has been so amazing. My career feels complete. I don’t feel like I have to prove anything. I’m just so happy for so many other people right now than myself.”