AKRON, Ohio – On a day when the two biggest names in golf played like weekend hackers, Hunter Mahan grabbed the lead midway through the final round of the Bridgestone Invitational and refused to let go.
Mahan shot a 6-under 64 on Sunday and made several huge swings down the stretch to hold off Ryan Palmer by two strokes for his third career win and a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
"I was nervous," said Mahan, a 28-year-old player who took the lead for good with his second straight birdie at the ninth hole. "I wanted it so bad and I was playing so good. I just didn't want to make any bogeys. I didn't want to give them any momentum out there."
From there he played carefully but not conservatively, putting up eight pars and a birdie at the 13th hole.
At the par-5 16th, the signature "Monster" hole at Firestone Country Club, he hit a 5-wood second shot instead of laying up short of the large lake which fronts the green. He didn't think it was much of a gamble.
"The thing was, there was no out of bounds anywhere — that we could see," he said with a laugh. "The only place you couldn't hit it was short, obviously. There's just not a bad spot to be except exactly where I hit it."
Mahan's shot slid right of the green near a flower bed, and was stopped by a bush. He received a free drop, chipped onto the green, lagged a 60-foot putt to 2 feet and then tapped in for par. Two more pars left him at 12-under 268 and capped a huge comeback from a seven-shot deficit after the opening round. He played the final 27 holes in 10 under, without a bogey.
"To win is ... the best feeling in the world," he said. "To do it when you have to, when you're kind of behind and you need to do something special and do it when you need it, to make putts like I needed to, it feels great."
The $1.4 million check will go a long way toward a nice honeymoon when he and girlfriend Kandi Harris, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, get married in January.
Despite Mahan's flawless play on Sunday, the tournament might be remembered for the failures of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Woods, a seven-time winner of the Bridgestone, had the worst tournament of his pro career, closing out a dreadful week with a 77 that left him at 298 and tied for next-to-last in the 80-player field. Struggling all week with every aspect of his game, he ended up 18 over, with 25 bogeys or worse, and finished 30 strokes behind Mahan — all career worsts.
Woods, whose world has turned upside down after revelations of marital infidelity, said he wasn't surprised by how poorly he played.
"It's been a long year," he said simply.
With Woods struggling, Mickelson could have moved up a spot to become No. 1 in the world rankings. Instead, he also had an abysmal round, shooting a 78.
"You're only as good as your last performance," Mickelson said after falling from a tie for 10th place all the way to a tie for 46th. "This wasn't very good."
Meanwhile, others did well on a long course which should provide a good snapshot of what it'll be like next week at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
Palmer, tied with Sean O'Hair for the lead at the start of the final round, played the front side in 1 over. He birdied the next two holes and then parred out — never able to quite catch up with Mahan.
"It was a good day; I can't be disappointed," said Palmer, who had missed the cut in 10 of 12 events before the Bridgestone. "I finished second in a World Golf Championship and I played good today, being under the gun like I was. 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 (65) and Bo Van Pelt (67) shared third at 271. O'Hair's closing 71 left him at 272. Jim Furyk, whose third shot to the green at the 16th hit the pin and ricocheted back into the water, had a 64 and shared sixth with Jeff Overton (69).
Amid all the wreckage left behind by Woods and Mickelson, Mahan stamped himself as one of the top young Americans in the game. He said a win like the Bridgestone changes everything.
"To win anytime on the PGA Tour is great, but an event like this, 80 of the best players in the world, this is something special," he said. "All the players all over the world come here to play, and it's definitely the best win of my career, for sure."
Then, nodding to the unique Wedgewood urn that goes to the winner, he added, "And it's probably the coolest trophy we get, too."
It'll make a nice wedding present.