The father of golf’s million-dollar baby is back at work, seeking his first major championship in Thursday’s opening round of the PGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y.
Hunter Mahan, a Dallas resident who ranks No. 25 in the world golf rankings and 16th on the PGA Tour season money list ($2,339,697), would hold loftier perches in both categories if not for a family-first decision he made July 27. Mahan, who moved from Colleyville to Dallas earlier this year, withdrew from the Canadian Open while holding a two-stroke lead through 36 holes after learning that his wife, Kandi, had gone into labor with the couple’s first child.
Mahan, 31, made it back to Texas in time to witness the birth of his daughter, Zoe Olivia Mahan, at 3:26 a.m. on July 28. The baby arrived three weeks ahead of the projected due date, causing Hunter to hastily alter his playing schedule — and surrender the inside track to a $1 million winner’s check in Canada that went to Brandt Snedeker — to experience family bonding time with Zoe and Kandi, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
Mahan, a former Oklahoma State standout and two-time participant on U.S. Ryder Cup teams (2010, 2008), will compete as a father for the first time in a PGA Tour event Thursday at Oak Hill Country Club.
During a news conference at Oak Hill, Mahan said he has been overwhelmed by positive feedback from fans who embraced his decision to bypass a potential seven-digit winner’s check in Canada, as well as a spot in last week’s high-paying WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, to embrace a “really exciting new chapter in my life.”
“I haven’t met anyone who has said I made the wrong decision,” said Mahan, who monitored his Twitter account on his cellphone to gauge feedback while clearing customs in Canada after withdrawing with the 36-hole lead. “Usually on Twitter, they tell me how much I suck all the time and how dumb I am. So I figured somebody would say, ‘You’re an idiot.’ …But I didn’t see that. Maybe I didn’t look far enough down [the timeline]. But it’s been pretty much a consensus of people saying I did the right thing.”
At the top of that list is Snedeker, who trailed Mahan by 10 strokes at the midpoint of the Canadian Open before the 36-hole leader withdrew and returned to Texas. After his victory, Snedeker said he would send Mahan “a very nice baby gift” to celebrate Zoe’s birth.
Asked for an update on Snedeker’s generosity, Mahan said: “No, I have not received it yet. But I am waiting patiently.”
Other than a July 30 appearance with Kandi and Zoe from the family’s home on ABC’s Good Morning America, Mahan focused on family time while away from the tour before arriving at Oak Hill to prepare for golf’s final major of the 2013 season. As an only child, Mahan said the joy of fatherhood resonated with him and he relished sharing that excitement with his parents, who live in California but traveled to Texas to meet their granddaughter.
“To have all the generations there, it was really neat. It was a special time,” Mahan said. “It was just nice to have that quiet time, just me and Kandi and Zoe just kicking it. It was a lot of fun, a time I’ll never get back.”
It was a time, in Mahan’s estimation, far more precious than a payday. During the ABC appearance, Kandi said she and Hunter discussed Zoe’s potential early arrival before he left for Canada. The couple decided he should go but would be alerted in an emergency. Then, her water broke.
“So we called Hunter immediately,” Kandi Mahan told ABC. “The doctor assured me she [Zoe] wouldn’t be there in a few hours, so he’d have time to make it. Once he arrived, it was just perfect.”
Kandi’s call triggered an unforgettable chain of events once Chris Armstrong, Mahan’s agent, found him on the practice range. Player and agent left immediately. Mahan identified clearing customs as “our only kind of hurdle and question mark” in his race to board a private plane for a flight to the Addison airport. The plane landed that evening and Mahan said he joined his wife at the hospital around 7:15 p.m., well before Zoe’s 3:26 a.m. arrival the next morning.
“Kandi had just had her epidural, and it was a waiting game after that,” Mahan said of the eight-hour span until he witnessed his daughter’s birth. “It felt like 30 minutes when it was all said and done. It was a wild day. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was a great experience.”
Multiple peers have weighed in with opinions in support of Mahan’s move. Snedeker said his withdrawal from the 2011 Honda Open to attend the birth of his daughter, Lily, marked “the best decision I ever made.”
But Snedeker, unlike Mahan, was not holding a 36-hole lead when he withdrew in 2011. The circumstances surrounding Mahan’s withdrawal in Canada made global news.
Combined with strong recent finishes at the U.S. Open (tied for fourth) and British Open (tied for ninth), the quality of Mahan’s play also makes him a likely contender this week at Oak Hill. Mahan said he resumed practice sessions last weekend in Texas but regaining the tournament mindset “feels very unfamiliar” in light of recent, life-changing events.
“I feel like I’ve had a month off,” Mahan said. “But it’s only been… eight or nine days. So it’s a little weird feeling. Staying home last week, I really soaked it in and appreciated it. I feel like I got that [emotional high] out of my system to where I can come back and be focused and play.”
During Thursday’s round, Mahan will discover how much emotional carryover remains in his system. But he knows this: As a new father, he now has one more mouth to feed in Texas, regardless of how large his paycheck turns out to be at the PGA Championship.