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Mellow Mahan in the hunt

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Ben Dirs | 11:14 UK time, Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The plan was to speak to Hunter Mahan about American claimants to Tiger's throne, now Tiger had been usurped. Or abdicated, whichever way you look at it. Then Tiger won at Bay Hill and looked regal again. Before Mahan won in Houston to become the top-ranked American. So we were left with an outcast king and a pretender. Which usually means war.

Only Mahan, who has finally learned to relax on the golf course, is not really war-like by nature. At least not as we know it. Plus, Mahan and Woods share the same kingmaker, the Canadian golf coach Sean Foley, who also has the ear of England's Justin Rose. As Rose said when asked who would win this week's Masters: "Sean Foley is the favourite."

Between them, Mahan, Woods and Rose have won four of the last six tournaments on the PGA Tour, with Mahan, newly-installed as the world number four, landing two of them, including the Houston Open on Sunday. That's your each-way bets sorted.

Rumour round the Augusta campfire it that 14-time major winner Woods has never swung it better, which makes Foley not so much a guru as a miracle worker given the shape Woods' swing was in last year.

"Tiger's been through a lot, some of it self-inflicted, some of it not," the 29-year-old Mahan tells BBC Sport. "It's been a long road back but he looks fantastic. I played with him at Bay Hill [where Woods won a fortnight ago] the first two days and he was very impressive, his game looks better than ever. Although he never really went away.

Hunter Mahan (left) and Rory McIlroy

Mahan (left) beat Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy to win the WGC Match Play in February

"He's got the exact right teacher who helped him swing through the injuries and gave him the proper knowledge of how to play. It's a great relationship and it's a great thing for the game. He brings a lot of energy to a tournament that no other player can bring."

While Mahan appreciates Woods's hunger on the golf course, he has not always been able to channel his intensity in the same way. Woods won so often because he wanted it so much. But wanting it so much can affect lesser beings in a more negative way.

"If you want to play your best, you've got to be relaxed, I can't be tense," says Mahan, remembered by most British sports fans as the man whose fluffed chip in the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor handed the match to Graeme McDowell and the trophy to Europe.

"That [chip] could have taken me down the wrong path, but one shot isn't going to convince me I'm a bad player. I've hit so many good shots in my life, so many good chips, so to let it affect me in a negative way would have been kind of silly.

"You play golf for so long, from the time you're a kid, and you have dreams and so many things you want to do and when you feel like you're better than your results, it's frustrating and golf becomes a little bit too important.

"But my general bearing shouldn't be about what I shoot, it should be about how I feel and what kind of person I want to be and I'm trying to do that. Golf provides me with a great living and I get to do something I really enjoy doing every single day. But it's not life."

As well as the world number four, Mahan is currently a member of the wildly popular PGA boy band Golf Boys - 3,149,630 YouTube views and climbing - whose video for Oh Oh Oh made a lie of the well-worn claim that while American golfers might do God, they certainly don't do fun.

Mahan rejects the suggestion the Golf Boys venture was a deliberate attempt to project his new-found perspective to the world, but he does admit American pros can learn from their European counterparts about the benefits of allowing a personality to shine through.

"It seems that European players are a little bit more themselves on the golf course," says Mahan, who has five wins on the PGA Tour. "They seem to have a little bit more fun at times, are always talkative and chatty, while American players are a little bit more controlled.

"It's highly likely [recent European success is down to this more relaxed attitude], I definitely see it as a positive. The more you're relaxed at anything the more fun you're going to have and the less it probably means to you. Which means it's easier to play well."

Mahan, with two top-10 finishes at Augusta in the last three years, says his game is "in great shape" and that Augusta makes him feel "like a little kid, like I've discovered golf all over again". So which of Foley's pupils is going to win it? Mahan, Woods or Rose? Erm, none of them actually, unless Mahan is being modest.

"Steve Stricker is due to play really well in a major," says Mahan. "Augusta's a thinking man's golf course, you've got to be very smart, every single shot is important. Steve is a great putter, a great iron player, a good driver of the ball. He's due to break out."

THREE MORE AMERICAN PRETENDERS

Keegan Bradley - The 25-year-old became only the third man to win on major debut when he landed the PGA Championship last year. No wins in 2012, but has nine top-25 finishes from nine starts.

Dustin Johnson - The world number 12 has built a reputation as a major nearly man, which is better than being a nowhere man. Three top-10 finishes from seven starts this season, could be a threat.

Bubba Watson - The left-landed slugger might have a funky swing, but a runners-up spot behind Rose at Doral, seven straight cuts made and a solid record at Augusta says he could be in the mix this week.

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