By Mark Lamport-Stokes
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Washington (Reuters) - Two years ago, Hunter Mahan went into the final round of the U.S. Open at Merion just one stroke off the pace and held a share of the lead with four holes to go before falling back into a tie for fourth.
Mahan signed off with a five-over-par 75 in difficult scoring conditions, but said later that he was happy with how he swung the club, maintained composure and stayed in contention for the title on what he described as "a brutal" day.
That tie for fourth remains his best finish, so far, in a major championship and he is banking on using that experience at Merion to his advantage when he tees off in Thursday's opening round at Chambers Bay in the 115th U.S. Open.
"The mental grind of playing a major championship, especially a U.S. Open, is really the test," American Mahan told Reuters about his preparations for the second of the season's four majors.
"You are going to miss a putt, it's all about how stable you are mentally, how focused you are in the present in what you have to do.
"Obviously you have to play great but how you handle adversity, your ability to key in for four days, is paramount. In 72 holes, a lot's going to happen and the more you stay positive, stay in the moment, that's going to lead to success."
Of all four majors, the U.S. Open has generally been regarded as the toughest to win with its traditional course set-up of narrow fairways, thick rough and firm, fast conditions combining to produce a severe mental challenge.
Johnny Miller, who won the 1973 Open at Oakmont, has described the championship as making the players "more nervous than anything in golf, except maybe the Ryder Cup."
He went on to say: "It's easy to see guys unravel in a U.S. Open. Some guys just aren't tough enough to win a U.S. Open. If a guy wins an Open, his career opens up. He knows he can handle anything. It's the hardest test of golf."
AGREEING WITH MILLER
Mahan, a six-times winner on the PGA Tour, agrees with Miller's assessment.
"The margin for error at a U.S. Open is so thin, one bad shot can lead to a double-bogey quite quickly," said the 33-year-old Californian. "A mis-step here, a mis-step there and all of a sudden you are three or four over.
"The pressure on each shot is really the challenging part and you have to do your best to remain free and confident in your abilities and just pick your targets and make swings.
"You can't try to control a U.S. Open by force or control your ball too much. You just have to be able to pick the lines you want to take, pick the targets you want to take and be aggressive."
Mahan has won two of the elite World Golf Championships (WGCs), which bring together the game’s leading players, but has yet to add a major crown to his already impressive career resume.
"Winning a couple of the WGCs, they are the biggest non-major events that we play in and I don't see how much different they are than a major, other than everything around a major," Mahan said.
"I do feel I am becoming more comfortable contending in major championships, and I played pretty well in this year's Masters. I had a great weekend so I'm kind of building off of that."
Mahan, who has recorded eight top-10s in the majors, shot final rounds of 68 and 67 at the Masters to share ninth place.
"My game is in good order," he said. "I think it's just making some tiny adjustments technically but making bigger adjustments mentally.
"I trust in myself more and having more confidence in my abilities will take me further. I am excited about the U.S. Open and the rest of the year."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)