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Mahan's mental strength makes him Masters contender

Timing isn't necessarily everything, but it sure seems like Hunter Mahan is set to turn an accomplished season into a great one.

Mahan earned his fifth career PGA Tour title Sunday at the Houston Open, and will ride that win into Augusta National for The Masters next week.

The 29-year-old had already picked up the biggest victory of his career in February at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, but his most recent triumph will make him one of the more prominent names contending for the victory in a week's time.

Because of the win, Mahan will rise to fourth in the world rankings -- the highest position of his career and the highest of any American. He also sits atop the FedEx Cup standings and is the only multiple winner on the PGA Tour this year.

Now, nobody is confusing Mahan for a Tiger or a Phil. They're the players who are automatically assumed to be top contenders for major wins because they've already won so many.

But Mahan can seriously challenge the game's elite, and that's because he appears to have his game -- mentally and physically -- together.

He had fired a seven-under 65 on Saturday to move into position to win, then remained extraordinarily steady to grab the victory. On a Sunday, when many players struggled with tough pin placements on the Tournament Course at Redstone Golf Club, he carded 15 pars, two birdies and a bogey.

He made a few key shots he needed to get into the lead, then played it safe on the back nine. His only slip-up came when he found a bunker at the 14th and went on to bogey the hole, but he recovered and made a nice save at 16 to avoid another dropped shot.

That kind of patience will be key during early rounds at Augusta that will test him, and getting to the weekend hasn't always been a given for Mahan.

After finishing in a tie for 10th in 2009 and tying for eighth the following year at The Masters, he missed the cut in 2011. In fact, he missed the cut in three of the four majors last season.

He displayed some early-season inconsistency this year, finishing tied for sixth at the Farmers Insurance Open before missing the cut in Qatar. He's displayed that inconsistency even at the Houston Open, where he's either missed the cut or finished in the top 11.

However, his victories this year signal that this might be a different Mahan. On Saturday, he remarked that his game had never been as complete as it was for the match play championship. He also mentioned that in years when he's missed the cut at the Houston Open, it might have been because he was putting pressure on himself to play well with The Masters looming.

But whatever pressure Mahan felt Sunday -- because of The Masters, because he held the lead down the stretch -- he handled it.

Following his victory, Mahan said one of the big takeaways of this win will be his mental strength.

"This week, my mind was the strongest part of my game, and that's a great thing to feel," Mahan said. "When you play a major, you're going to need all facets of your game, especially your mind, to be a strength."

He said he would have felt good about his game heading into Augusta whether he won or lost in Houston, but closing out the victory will be a valuable boost to his confidence. Mahan hasn't often won that way.

But because he got to the 18th in Houston with the lead, then hit good shots to secure the win, he'll be more comfortable should he find himself in contention at The Masters.

"I've been on the back nine Sunday twice and felt the roars and felt the cheers and everything, so that's going to help, because I remember those feelings," Mahan said.

On Sunday, he trusted his shots and trusted his mind. A win followed.

Mahan admitted that Augusta is "its own animal," but maybe, because of his experience this weekend, a green jacket will be next.