Win puts Mahan into Ryder Cup talk


PARAMUS, N.J. -- John Wood was in a hurry, the golf bag on his shoulder, the cheering still going behind him at Ridgewood Country Club, looking like a man who wanted to beat the rush out of the parking lot.

Nope, the urgency was about getting to the 18th green. He wanted to retrieve the flagstick, a caddie custom to take as a souvenir when your player wins a golf tournament.

"It's been awhile," Wood said smiling, referring to the victory drought endured by his long-time loop Hunter Mahan, who captured the Barclays on Sunday.

It was a victory that was sweet in so many ways.

Sure, it vaulted Mahan to the top of the FedEx Cup standings, likely to elicit cries about how a guy who has been on virtually nobody's radar all year could suddenly be leading the points race (he had been 62nd) that will pay the winner $10 million.

But perhaps even bigger to Mahan, it was his first victory in more than two years. He won for the first time since leaving the Canadian Open last summer with the 36-hole lead to be with his wife, Candace, for the birth of their daughter.

And, of course, it put him in the U.S. Ryder Cup team discussion.

"I had a feeling. I had a feeling it was coming today," said Wood, who has worked for Mahan since 2006 -- and through every single FedEx Cup playoff event dating to the first one in 2007. "He's been doing everything right since Akron [the WGC-Bridgestone]. And he finally started making some putts.

"He's shot a couple of good scores but not quite as good as he could. But this week he did. Could have been even lower. He's hitting the ball like he used to hit it, like he did at the beginning of the year. Sean has been incredible. And one little thing in Akron, he strengthened his grip a touch and everything came right back."

Sean would be Sean Foley, known much more -- and criticized incessantly -- for his work with Tiger Woods. Foley also instructs Justin Rose, and the duo have been firm in support of Foley. Earlier in the week, Mahan even took to defending his instructor.

"It's comical," he said of the criticism. "And most likely [coming] from people that have no idea who Sean Foley is and what he's doing and obviously no one knows Tiger, so you're not getting anything there."

What Mahan knows is that Foley has helped him become a top-notch ball-striker, a quality that has been missing in his game for most of the year. He started to see signs of progress last month at the Open Championship, got the grip tweak at the Bridgestone and now has his sixth PGA Tour victory.

And coming off a tie for 15th at the Bridgestone and a tie for seventh at the PGA Championship, all of a sudden Mahan has to be prominent in the discussion for one of captain Tom Watson's three at-large picks on Sept. 2.

Of those who made the U.S. team so far, the last to win was Matt Kuchar in April. The idea of the captain's picks is to tab someone who is hot. So far, with one event to go, Mahan looks like a guy fitting that definition.

"I've been thinking about it for a few weeks," Mahan said. "Just the unfortunate things that have happened to the guys on the team [injuries], seems like it's let a lot of guys in. I don't know who he is thinking about or what his process is, but I need a strong couple weeks, a strong major and a strong couple playoff events to have a chance.

"Obviously a win, it helps a lot. Obviously playing well at the PGA helped a lot. So I have no idea what he's thinking or if he has any sort of strategy. But I think a win is a good step in the right direction."

Watson could certainly do far worse than Mahan, 33, who has endured his own share of Ryder Cup turmoil and might feel there is some unfinished business -- always a strong motivator.

Four years ago, Mahan was in the singles anchor position and saw his match against Graeme McDowell settle the entire thing at Celtic Manor in Wales. That he flubbed a chip shot late in the proceedings did not help his reputation, but it was always overblown as at the time he needed a miracle to salvage the half point the U.S. needed.

"It was a sour feeling," Mahan said. "I think Geoff Ogivly had the best quote about team events: it's the most fun you'll ever have, until you figure out you're going to lose. But that's the truth of it. Everybody gets so geared up for it, man, and you just see these emotions coming out of people to be free and just go out there and play golf because you want to win for no other reason.

"It's really an honor to be part of the team, and I think with this win, I've got a chance."

Speaking of emotion ... it was Mahan who was in tears, unable to speak, after losing that match to McDowell. It is hard to forget that scene, Phil Mickelson interrupting to take over answering media questions that day in Wales, standing up for a teammate.

Undoubtedly, that experience emboldened Mahan, but he was unable to find his way onto the 2012 team, slipping out of the eighth (there are now nine) automatic spot in the last week, then not getting a pick from Davis Love III.

"It's kind of role reversal," said Mahan, who was 25th in the points standings through the PGA Championship. "I've been out all year long."

That Mahan shot 65, birdieing five of his last eight holes, certainly has to help. So does a 2-shot victory in one of the biggest tournaments of the year, one that will assure Mahan making it to the Tour Championship and competing in every single FedEx Cup tournament since it started.

"Hopefully Captain Watson is looking for some hot players," Wood said. "I think Hunter fits the bill. He's a great match player. He loves the Ryder Cup and he'd love to be a part of it obviously. Hopefully this goes a little bit to making a chance to be one of his picks."

And after all, Wood wouldn't mind picking off one of the Ryder Cup flagsticks in Scotland as well.