It's high noon, lunchtime, and the leaders are two hours from teeing off in the fourth round of the Travelers Championship. Yet if they can feel some heat, let it be known that it's not the weather.
It's a ball-striking machine named Hunter Mahan.
Starting Sunday in the first pairing, off at 8:30 a.m., Mahan was 1 under and 11 behind the leaders - Brian Davis and Roland Thatcher, both of whom probably were fast asleep. A little more than three hours later, Mahan was tied for third, just two off the lead, a dramatic change that came courtesy of a sizzling 9-under 61 at TPC River Highlands.
OK, so the picture probably will change by day's end, but when he signed his card, Mahan had leaped virtually the entire field. When he struck his first tee shot, 67 players were ahead of Mahan; when he rolled in a 20-footer at the 18th hole - his ninth birdie of the day and sixth on the back nine - only Davis and Thatcher sat ahead of him.
All of which left Mahan shaking his head and laughing.
No, he said, "we didn't mentally check out Saturday, but we were close."
That's because the day before had been a long, grueling one during which Mahan not once but twice had to make the cut. First, he completed a second round that had been halted by Friday's torrential rain. Figuring 1 under would be the cut, Mahan birdied his 15th and 16th holes, the par-5 sixth and par-4 seventh, respectively, and got to 36 holes at 1 under.
As it turns out, level par made the cut, but when a secondary cut was needed later in the afternoon, Mahan knew for sure that it would be 1 under this time around. So with a 30-footer for birdie at his 18th hole, the par-4 ninth, Mahan figured he would cozy it up to the hole. Only thing is, "that's a hole (location) we've never seen before," and Mahan misjudged the speed.
"I needed to make a 6-footer (for par) just to make the cut," he said.
He made it and oh, how he took advantage with a brilliant ball-striking performance. Playing in front of birds, marshals and a few fans, Mahan hit 11 fairways and 16 greens, though it wasn't until the sixth hole that a birdie putt fell.
To that point, Mahan conceded frustration had consumed him.
"We were playing well, but there were bounces and rolls and we kept getting in spots that made us say, 'Are you kidding me?' " Mahan said.
When he birdied the eighth and ninth, still, no big deal. Then he really heated up and with an inward 29, he had roared up the leaderboard.
But if the nine birdies and round of 61 had to take a back seat to anything, it came from a special visit by David Finn, a young man from River Edge, N.J., who has captured the hearts of many PGA Tour players. He has a mitochondrial disorder which affects his limbs and leaves him unable to speak, but with family and friends pushing the young man in a wheelchair, Finn is a staple at PGA Tour stops in the Northeast.
"Happiest kid I've ever met," said John Wood, Mahan's longtime caddie who prompted a heartwarming scene to finish off his man's scintillating round. Given that nobody was ahead of them, Wood and Mahan got the OK to bring Finn inside the ropes for the march up 18. Wood carried Mahan's bag and pushed Finn, much to the delight of a crowd that had finally gathered to watch this brilliant round of golf.
Finding yet another fairway and yet another green, Mahan completed the 61 and moments later signed the velcro "Mahan" name tag that Wood had worn on the back of his caddie bib. "I need you around more often," is how Mahan signed it.
"He's totally aware of what's going on," Mahan said of Finn. "It was a cool moment."
Indeed, it was.
Even if it supplied a ton of heat to guys who had not even made it to the golf course.