PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Sean O’Hair braced for the worst as his ball descended toward an island green that suddenly looked smaller. He bowed his head, then stuck his hand on his hip as he waited to see his ball disappear into the water.
It worked out better than he could have imagined Saturday at The Players Championship.
What looked like trouble on the infamous 17th hole turned into the centerpiece of a birdie-birdie-birdie finish for O’Hair, who wound up with a 6-under 66 and a one-shot lead over Phil Mickelson going into the final round of golf’s richest tournament.
“After that hole, I felt like puking,” O’Hair said.
Mickelson narrowly escape trouble down the stretch. His tee shot on the par-5 16th rattled through the trees on the right until it popped out in the first cut of rough, and he carved an approach from about 235 yards to 20 feet for a two-putt birdie. His final tee shot was high and hugging the lake down the left side, but settled in the fairway. He stuck his approach 2 feet away for birdie and a 69.
O’Hair was at 9-under 207 and will be paired with Mickelson in the final group.
But this is hardly a two-man show at the TPC Sawgrass.
Peter Lonard made a double eagle on the par-5 second — the second albatross this week — and played bogey-free the rest of his round until getting stuck behind a tree and dropping a shot on the last hole for a 68. He was at 7-under 209 along with former U.S. Amateur champion Jeff Quinney, who shot a tournament-best 64 in the morning to put his name atop the leaderboard.
Jose Coceres was among five players who had at least a share of the lead, but that changed when his 8-iron hopped over the island green and he took double bogey.
“I just let the pressure of 17 get to me, and I just hit it too hard,” Coceres said after his 68.
One guy who took himself out of the tournament was Tiger Woods, who failed to break par for the fifth straight round at The Players. He shot 73 — leaving him 14 strokes back at 5 over — and walked off the course without speaking to reporters.
Woods snap-hooked a fairway metal into the water for double bogey on No. 7, pulled his tee shot on the next hole and made another bogey and couldn’t make up any ground on a day when everyone else was firing off birdies.
He played with Henrik Stenson, whose eagle-birdie-par finish gave him a 66.
Joey Sindelar played alone in the first group and predicted a wild day when he said, “You could be on offense today.”
And they were.
Quinney was on his way to his 64 when the gallery came to life behind the second hole. Lonard had 211 yards to the front of the green, hit a 5-iron and couldn’t see when the ball caught the slope and raced toward the hole.
“The reaction said it all,” Lonard said. “But I didn’t believe it until I picked it out of the hole.”
That seemed to set the stage for plenty of excitement at Sawgrass. With only a gentle breeze and several hole locations that allowed for birdies, it was a race to see who could get to the top of the leaderboard and stay there.
And typical of this golf course, there was plenty of punishment.
Sergio Garcia made a swift climb into contention with eight birdies in 16 holes, only to finish by pulling a 6-iron into the water for double bogey, and getting defensive when someone asked about the shot.
“I didn’t yank it, I just pulled it a little bit,” Garcia said. “It went 2 yards into the water. It didn’t go 30 yards in the water.”
Davis Love III wasted a good round with a double bogey-triple bogey finish. Tom Pernice chipped across the 18th green and into the water on the final hole.
And there is always a nail-biting moment with Mickelson.
He was on the practice range at 8 a.m. — more than six hours before his tee time — with swing coach Butch Harmon, and the lesson seemed to pay off as Mickelson kept the ball inside the ropes and his name where everyone could see it. Then came a wayward tee shot on the par-5 ninth that led to bogey, and a tee shot into the bunker behind trees on the 10th.
Instead of the safe shot, Mickelson went through a tiny gap in the trees and onto the front of the green, escaping with par.
“It was plenty big for a ball to fit through,” he said. “It was a tough enough shot where I felt like Bones (caddie Jim Mackay) would try to talk me out of it.”
O’Hair never dreamed of a birdie-birdie-birdie finish. After a three-putt bogey on the 15th, he only wanted to hit the next fairway. His approach came up just short of the green, setting up a simple pitch for birdie.
Then came the 17th, where O’Hair figured he would be another victim.
“I just thought it was a good, solid 9-iron,” O’Hair said. “I hit it exactly the way I wanted to, but as I hit it, the wind died. I was like, ‘That’s in the water.’ It ended up being a great shot.”
His expression told it all from the time the ball left his club until it settled 5 feet from the hole. As he stood there glaring, his face finally softened when he saw it land, and he slid his tongue out the side of his mouth, realizing his good fortune.
Luke Donald (65) and Carl Petterson (70) were among those in the group at 5-under 211, while U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy was in the group five shots behind.
The most surprising contender might be Quinney.
He shot 83-80 last week at Wachovia and was in the middle of the pack going into the weekend at Sawgrass.
“This is not a course where you really want to come in struggling with your game, because Pete Dye is known for intimidating golf shots,” Quinney said. “Golf is just a crazy game.”