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Houston win puts Mahan in right state of mind for Masters

updated 9:06 AM EDT, Mon April 2, 2012
Hunter Mahan waves to the gallery during the final round of the Houston Open at Redstone on Sunday.
Hunter Mahan waves to the gallery during the final round of the Houston Open at Redstone on Sunday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hunter Mahan climbs up to a career-high fourth in golf's world rankings
  • American becomes the PGA Tour's first two-time winner of the 2012 season
  • His one-shot victory at the Houston Open boosts his hopes of a first major
  • The 29-year-old goes into the Masters this week with a new mental approach

(CNN) -- Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods will predictably be among the favorites for this week's Masters Tournament, but another name slipped into title contention on Sunday.

Hunter Mahan's victory at the Houston Open lifted him up to fourth in the world rankings, higher than any other American who will be playing at the golf season's opening major at Augusta National.

Mahan's one-shot victory over Sweden's Carl Petterson launched him to the top of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings, but more importantly he showed a new mental strength that may help him win one of the sport's four biggest events this year.

"I felt like this week my mind was probably the strongest part of my game. That's a great thing to feel for sure," he told the PGA Tour's official website after becoming the first two-time winner of 2012, following up his victory at the World Match Play Championship in late February -- when he beat McIlroy in the final.

"When you play a major, you're going to have to have all facets of the game, especially your mind has to be a strength. What I'm going to take from this week is that my mind was so strong, I was able to persevere through some ... you know, having the lead and doing something I haven't done before.''

What I was doing before, it stunk. It wasn't any fun. It just doesn't make sense to beat yourself up
Hunter Mahan

The 29-year-old had won three PGA events before this year, but is perhaps best known for his emotional defeat in the final game of the 2010 Ryder Cup teams event when he broke down in tears after losing the decider to Europe's Graeme McDowell.

"I felt like I could be a good player in this game, but to win twice this year and be fourth, it feels great, really does. It shows me what I can do, shows me what I'm capable of,'' Mahan said.

"I wasn't reaching my potential, in a way. I think great players, when you see them, their head is always up. They never seem to get down. They might get upset over a shot, but don't get down on themselves over a shot. It just never seems to bother them.

"You also watch Tiger ... I played with him last week. He's just got that confidence and that swagger back where it's just head up, chest back and ready to go play. You got to be positive in this game -- it's too hard. Hitting a good shot might be hitting it 30 feet (from the pin). You don't have to hit it (to) two feet for it to be a good shot.''

Mahan said he is enjoying the game more with his new approach.

"I think I'm just tired of doing it the wrong way,'' he said. "What I was doing before, it stunk. It wasn't any fun. We play so many holes, play so many tournaments -- it just doesn't make sense to beat yourself up, you know, because the game is hard enough.''

Mahan said he had thought about skipping the Texas tournament, where he had finished in the top eight three times in five years.

But the prospect of having to spend extra time at such a daunting place as Augusta, where he has twice made the top 10 in the last three years, made the decision to play at Redstone a simple one.

"I didn't like the idea of spending so much time there before the tournament, and the hardest part of that tournament is Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, because you're just sitting around and seeing the course. You can't wait to get started,'' he said.

Mahan will seek to preserve a remarkable statistic in a sport where good putting is often the difference between success and failure -- he has not three-putted in 102 holes, more than five and a half rounds of golf.

But one player missing from the Masters field is South Africa's three-time major champion Ernie Els.

The 42-year-old, twice a runner-up at the Masters, needed to win in Houston to earn a starting place but finished six shots back and will not line up at Augusta for the first time since 1993.

Petterson finished on 15-under 273, one shot ahead of 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, who fell away from contention with a 75.

Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson tied for fourth on 276 in a group including 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley.

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