PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Sean O’Hair was working harder than ever and reaping crumbs at the bottom of the leaderboard, so when he missed the cut at Riviera last month, he went home and reviewed some old videotape of his rookie season.
The difference he noticed was not so much the swing, but the joy.
“I was just playing golf,” he said. “It didn’t matter what anybody said about my golf swing. It didn’t matter what anybody said about how I played the game. I believed in it, and I had a good year.”
His rookie season in 2005 was best remembered for his five-shot comeback to win the John Deere Classic that earned him a trip to St. Andrews for the British Open. Sunday might have been even sweeter.
O’Hair rallied from a three-shot deficit at the PODS Championship, pulled ahead when Stewart Cink suffered a four-hole meltdown, and closed with a 2-under 69 for a two-shot victory at Innisbrook.
The victory will move him into the top 40 in the world ranking, giving him a spot in the $8 million World Golf Championship at Doral in two weeks. And it earns him a trip to Augusta National for the Masters next month, another surprise.
And while he is only 25, a young father of two, O’Hair figures he has learned a lot about who he is.
“You see these guys like Tiger, like Phil, and they come out there and play and win and it’s almost like men against schoolboys,” O’Hair said. “What are they doing differently than me? And you try to learn from them, but all of a sudden, you get caught in this vicious circle of trying to be somebody you’re not.
“I’m not Tiger. I’m far from Tiger,” he said. “I’m far from Phil.”
So who is he? And how good can he be?
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” O’Hair said with a boyish smile. “Obviously, I’m good enough to win.”
He certainly was on a mild, sunny afternoon at Innisbrook, although he needed some help. O’Hair did his part with a birdie on the par-5 11th to get in range, two clutch pars from the 5-foot range to stay in the hunt, and a 30-foot birdie he called the best of his life.
That still might not have been enough except for Cink going down the drain by dropping four shots in a four-shot stretch that left him wondering what he did wrong.
First came a long three-putt bogey on the toughest par 3. Cink then had a tee shot stop next to a tree that led to bogey on a par 5, missed a 4-foot birdie on the next hole, then followed that with a tee shot into the water at the 16th. He wound up with a 74 to finish in a six-way tie for second.
“I’m a little shell-shocked and a little bit angry,” Cink said. “I’m extremely frustrated after this. What happened to me – what I allowed to happen to me – is going to make me a better player in the future. But I’ve got some soul-searching to do.”
For O’Hair, a big celebration is in order.
He hadn’t won since 2005, when he was a rookie and golf felt easy.
“When I won (the first time), it just kind of happened,” O’Hair said, wiping tears from his eyes. “I didn’t really appreciate it. I thought I was good enough to do this every year. But it’s been such a struggle to get to this point again. This is awesome, and I’m going to enjoy it.”
Cink suffered a loss perhaps even more devastating than the Accenture Match Play Championship blowout against Tiger Woods.
At Innisbrook, Cink had a four-shot lead after birdies on the first two holes, and he still had the lead going to the back nine. But he missed a simple birdie on the 12th, three-putted from long range on the 13th, and looked up to the sunny skies in utter disbelief when he found his ball nestled up against a pine on the 14th.
“I didn’t feel like I made any real mistakes,” Cink said. “When I saw my ball up against the tree on 14, I was starting to wonder if this wasn’t my day. I was a little bit shocked. But I put myself in that position.”
He made a 50-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole that allowed him to join a six-way tie for second.
John Senden closed with a 67 and was a runner-up for the second straight year, both times finishing about an hour before the leaders. He tied for second with Cink (74), Ryuji Imada (68), George McNeill (69), Troy Matteson (69) and Billy Mayfair (72).
The Copperhead Course played nearly two shots over par, making it the toughest track on tour this year. O’Hair’s winning score of 280 was the highest ever at Innisbrook. But he was the only player to shoot par or better all four rounds, and he saved his best for Sunday.
He got into the mix with a birdie on the opening hole. His chip from behind the 11th green to tap-in range for birdie pulled him within one shot. Then came a couple of par putts in the 4- to 5-foot range, to stay in the lead.
After a 7-iron to 30 feet below the hole on the 15th, O’Hair raised his arm when it dropped in the center of the cup.
“One of the best putts I’ve ever hit in my life,” he said. “With 10 feet to go, I knew it was in the hole. From there, I was just trying not to throw up on myself.”
But he couldn’t stop the tears when it was over, especially remembering the pep talk last week from his father-in-law, Steve Lucas.
“He told me how he believed in me, how he felt I was on the right track, and if I started believing in myself, everything would happen,” O’Hair said. “I didn’t believe him. But I guess he was right.”