Hunter Mahan contended in multiple majors last season before losing ground amid a disappointing 2013-14 campaign. The talented, exceptional ball-striker redeemed a lot of those travails on Sunday, firing a six-under 65 in the final round to win The Barclays.
There were signs that Mahan was rounding into form ahead of the FedEx Cup playoff opener, as he'd previously finished in the top 10 at the PGA Championship and joint 15th at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Golf Channel's Justin Ray highlighted Mahan's incredible turnaround this month:
Hunter Mahan scoring this season April-May 72.04 (+11) June-July 71.56 (+11) August 67.90 (-31)— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) August 24, 2014
Now Mahan suddenly finds himself atop the FedEx Cup points standings.
It took an exceptional back nine for Mahan to close out his first PGA Tour victory since the 2012 Shell Houston Open.
Mahan carded five birdies from Nos. 11 through 17 before nerves got to him at the par-four 18th, which played as the hardest hole on the course. He drained a one-putt bogey to secure the win by two strokes over Jason Day, Stuart Appleby and Cameron Tringale at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, New Jersey.
Let's take a closer look at Mahan's postseason outlook ahead of next week's Deutsche Bank Championship, along with the golfers closest to him pursuing the FedEx Cup.
Analyzing Top FedEx Cup Contenders
A hot putter over the final nine holes allowed Mahan to break out of a crowded, quality leaderboard on Sunday to get a much-needed breakthrough win.
Shane Bacon of Yahoo Sports noted how clutch Mahan has been in closing out tournaments he wins:
Hunter Mahan has shot 65 or lower on Sunday in four of his five stroke play wins on the PGA Tour. 65 today at the Barclays.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) August 24, 2014
Mahan evidently has the nerves to get it done down the stretch. The trick for him is to position himself there on a more consistent basis. There's no question he's trending in the right direction, which improves his chances to be an at-large captain's pick for the USA Ryder Cup team to boot.
But as far as the FedEx Cup playoffs are concerned, perhaps no one is as steady as Mahan, per Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman:
Hunter Mahan is the only man in history to play every Fed Ex Cup playoff event. He just won his first one at The Barclays.— Kelly Tilghman (@KellyTilghmanGC) August 24, 2014
Tee to green has always been the strength of Mahan's game. If he keeps putting like he did Sunday, though, he has a real chance to take home the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus that comes with it.
Mahan ranked 41st in strokes gained putting even before his Barclays triumph. His all-around game appeared to be peaking in 2013 before he stepped back this season. With all those struggles, Mahan couldn't have hoped for much better timing to turn the corner.
There is a certain familiarity factor present with regard to McIlroy chasing Mahan. The four-time major winner couldn't quite top his opponent in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship final in 2012, when Mahan was just too good for even McIlroy to handle.
After three consecutive wins, a letdown was bound to happen for McIlroy. He admitted he wasn't quite on his game at The Barclays, yet appeared optimistic after a second straight score of 70 tied him for 21st in New Jersey:
McIlroy wasn't quite as sharp in terms of driving accuracy this week—proving costly due to the thick rough at Ridgewood. Meanwhile, his putter wasn't cooperating often enough to bail him out or capitalize on his continued solid iron play.
TPC Boston serves as the venue for next week's Deutsche Bank Championship, where McIlroy won in 2012 amid a scorching summer. Now that he's taken a week off and acclimatized back to competition, McIlroy ought to be positioned well to win again—for the fourth time in five starts.
In that summer of 2012, the young superstar also won the BMW Championship. Even though that was at a different venue, the incentive of the FedEx Cup should continue driving McIlroy to further greatness in the PGA Tour postseason and see him in prime position for the top prize.
Don't be deceived by Walker's missed cut at The Barclays. It's been a breakout year for the late bloomer, as he won three times toward the beginning of the season and didn't flinch on the major stage.
Walker had top-10 finishes at three of the four major championships, with his tie for 26th at the British Open being more attributable to a lack of links golf experience than anything else. Underrated power off the tee and a ranking of third in total putting have allowed Walker to maintain his early 2013-14 success.
ESPN's John Buccigross points out how Walker is in rare company with McIlroy:
Most PGA TOUR Wins This Season Rory McIlroy 3 Jimmy Walker 3 Patrick Reed 2 Martin Kaymer 2 Bubba Watson 2— John Buccigross (@Buccigross) August 20, 2014
Who will win the FedEx Cup?
Bottom line is that this FedEx Cup is anyone's to get. American veterans Matt Kuchar and Jim Furyk are among the steadiest players on tour; they were in contention at The Barclays and are well within striking distance of Mahan, McIlroy and Walker.
Winning these high-stakes playoff events can quickly turn fortunes even for those who are further back in the standings, instantly turning FedEx Cup bubble players into surprise contenders.
But McIlroy has said that the FedEx Cup is one of the few titles in golf he hasn't been able to put his name on yet. That could well change, based on the way he's dominated over the past month or so. The Barclays is likely to be a minor bump in the road before McIlroy goes on to achieve even more.