Mahan wins at Firestone, earns Ryder Cup spot

Hunter Mahan took a big step toward joining the elite in golf on
Sunday, winning his first World Golf Championship title to lock up
a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Four shots behind to start the final round at Firestone, Mahan
ran off five birdies on the front nine to take the lead, then had
three clutch par saves down the stretch to finish off a 6-under 64
and a two-shot victory over Ryan Palmer.

It was the second victory this year for Mahan, and the $1.4
million he earned moved him to No. 2 in the Ryder Cup standings
with only the PGA Championship remaining before the top eight
Americans qualifying.

The battle for No. 1 was far less inspiring.

Tiger Woods will remain atop the world ranking for the 270th
consecutive week, despite the worst tournament of his career. Woods
closed with a 77 to finish at 18-over 298 – his highest score on
the PGA Tour as a pro or an amateur – and finished one spot out of
last place.

That cleared the way for Phil Mickelson to replace him at No. 1,
provided Lefty finished in fourth place alone.

Mickelson was even worse. He shot 41 on the front nine,
including a three-putt from 4 feet, and shot 78 to tie for
46th.

”It didn’t feel like it was far off,” Mickelson said. ”But it
turned out to be.”

Mahan was right on the money.

He shot 30 on the front nine to surge past Sean O’Hair, then
scrambled his way to victory. Mahan saved par with a 15-foot putt
on the 15th, made a tough par from the front of the 16th green
after hitting his second shot into a flower bed, then saved his
biggest fist pump for an 8-foot par putt on the 17th hole.

Mahan, who shot 65 in the final round to win the Phoenix Open in
February, finished at 12-under 268. He became the third American
with multiple victories on the PGA Tour this year, and likely will
move to a career-best No. 12 in the world.

The Ryder Cup was a big bonus.

”That was my goal at the beginning of the year, to make the
team on my own,” Mahan said.

Mahan has played on the past three U.S. teams – two Presidents
Cups and one Ryder Cup – as a captain’s pick. He was determined to
make the team on his own this year, but had only one top 10 since
Phoenix and during one stretch missed four straight cuts.

This week didn’t look promising when he opened with a 71, but
Mahan shot 67 on Friday and got back into the hunt with a 66 in the
third round. He became the first player to win Firestone with an
opening round over par since Greg Norman in 1995.

”Not making any bogeys on a Sunday is a good feeling,” Mahan
said.

He left that to everyone else around him.

O’Hair, who shared the 54-hole lead with Palmer, made two
birdies on the opening four holes to take an early lead, then
didn’t make a bogey the rest of the round. Palmer went out in 36,
started the back nine with back-to-back birdies and never made
another.

The Texan had his chances. He hit a 402-yard drive on the par-5
16th, which had the tees moved up to make the hole play only 602
yards, but his second shot went through the green.

He chipped to 12 feet and missed his birdie putt, then missed
another birdie from about 20 feet on the 17th to end his chances.
He closed with a 69.

”I can’t be disappointed,” Palmer said. ”I played good today
being under the gun. You’ve got to hand it to Hunter Mahan. He went
out and did what I expected somebody to do, and shot a low round. I
didn’t lose the golf tournament.”

Retief Goosen, the 36-hole leader until a triple bogey on the
opening hole Saturday, closed with a 65 and tied for third with Bo
Van Pelt, who shot a 67. O’Hair shot 71 and wound up alone in
fifth.

Mahan became only the fifth player to win a World Golf
Championship at Firestone, a short list with Woods winning seven
times. Typical of this event, however, there was drama on the
16th.

With a two-shot lead, Mahan went for the green in two and sailed
his fairway metal over the green, over the bleachers and into a
flower bed. Because the flower bed is part of the cart path, he was
given relief in the walkway to the 17th tee. Mahan played it safe,
going through the green, then putted from the fairway to about 3
feet for his par.

Woods finished his round some three hours before the leaders
teed off. He headed for Whistling Straits to get ready for the PGA
Championship, unsure what kind of game he could bring. Woods had
never shot over par at Firestone since 2006, and he did it all four
days to finish a career-high 30 shots out of the lead.

”Shooting 18-over par is not fun,” Woods said. ”I don’t see
how it can be fun shooting 18 over.”