Nice guy finishes first: Pro golf star scores 'Ace'

PGA Tour star Hunter Mahan famously walked away from a potential million-dollar payday to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. But sometimes, nice guys do finish first in sports.

Hunter Mahan of the United States waves to the crowd after making a birdie on the 16th hole during the second round of the RBC Canadian Open at Glen Abbey Golf Club on July 26, 2013, in Oakville, Ontario.
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Hunter Mahan of the United States waves to the crowd after making a birdie on the 16th hole during the second round of the RBC Canadian Open at Glen Abbey Golf Club on July 26, 2013, in Oakville, Ontario.

Mahan is poised to announce a multiyear endorsement deal with Ace Hardware on Tuesday, CNBC has learned. The money could help make up for earnings he lost when he withdrew from the 2013 RBC Canadian Open—while holding the 36-hole lead—so that he could be with wife Kandi for the birth of their daughter Zoe.

With rounds of 67-64, Mahan held a two-shot lead on July 27, 2013. But an hour before teeing off for the third round, he learned Kandi had entered labor back home in Dallas. The odds-on tournament favorite immediately hopped on a plane—costing himself a shot at the $1.08 million winner's prize later claimed by Brandt Snedeker. Zoe was nicknamed the "Million-Dollar Baby."

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The six-time PGA Tour winner's decision wasn't like a MLB or NBA player taking a day off to be with a pregnant wife. Pro golfers are independent contractors, with no guaranteed salaries. They earn through on-course winnings, sponsorships and appearance fees. But maybe the golf gods approved: With Kandi and 1-year old Zoe looking on, Mahan won the The Barclays last August to break a frustrating, 30-month-long winless drought.

"That's something that will always travel with me. If I did earn people's respect, that's great. The only reason I did it is that's where I wanted to be," Mahan told CNBC. "There was no other place I'd rather be at that time than seeing my daughter being born. It was a pretty magical, life-changing moment—and I was glad to be there for it."

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Mahan is the first active pro athlete to be sponsored by 91-year-old Ace Hardware, according to Jeff Gooding, the company's director of consumer marketing (Ace worked with NFL legend John Madden during his broadcasting days.)

Gooding pointed to the golfer's decision to put family before career. "Hunter is not only a standout player on the tour, but a standout person and family man as well," he said in a statement.

Ace declined to pin a dollar value on the deal. Under the deal, Mahan will add Ace's logo to his golf apparel. He also filmed a "Golf Swing Away" TV commercial that will debut on ESPN and 30 other cable networks in April to promote Ace's Free Store Pickup program. The merchant-owned hardware cooperative has more than 4,900 stores globally, generating over $3 billion in annual sales.

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Mahan's move in Canada struck a positive chord in corporate America, according to his agent Chris Armstrong, senior vice president of Wasserman Media Group. Mahan's other sponsors include: Under Armour, RBC, Titleist, Ping, FootJoy and NetJets.

The "story behind the story" is that sponsors are putting more value on character than statistics, said Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck. Athletic endorsers from Ray Rice and Michael Phelps to Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods have run into scandals in recent years.

"These are major companies—and image is a big part of what they do," Buck told CNBC. "I think companies will be a lot more selective. You will have to have a lot longer track record of acting the right way, and representing yourself and potentially a company, than you would have to have before."