Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., May 13 — He could’ve been crushed. He could’ve been angry. He could’ve been tearful.
Sean O’Hair was none of those things. Shortly after the kind of finish that makes grown golfers cringe — hitting two shots into the lake at the famed island-green 17th hole — O’Hair was confident and defiant. He had stared down Phil Mickelson for 16 holes. He had gone toe to toe with him before two splashes led to a quadruple-bogey 7 and knocked O’Hair out of contention so quickly it was almost surgical.
“I will win this tournament,” O’Hair said afterward. “This course fits me and I like it. I don’t think it’s an if, I will win this tournament.”
There’s something else you should know about O’Hair. That shot in the water at 17 on Sunday — it didn’t happen because he choked or was nervous or feeling the pressure. It happened because he went for broke and simply misread the wind direction.
“I could’ve gone for the middle of the green and taken two putts and taken second place, but I’m not going to do that,” said O’Hair, 24. “And I got kicked in the teeth today.”
He told Steve Lucas, his caddie (who also happens to be his father-in-law): “I’m not playing for second.” Then O’Hair pulled the 9-iron and aimed for the flag. He was two strokes behind Mickelson, who had already safely put his approach shot in the middle of the green, 35 feet away, and would likely make par.
The Sunday pin at 17 is not a flag to shoot at, much like the Sunday pin on the 12th hole at Augusta National. But O’Hair, who lives in West Chester, Pa., took the chance because he felt he had little choice.
The man with one PGA Tour victory to his credit (the 2005 John Deere Classic) chasing the man with 30 titles, including three majors, rolled the dice. When he swung the club, the ball took off on line, right at the flag. It appeared, frankly, that O’Hair had stiffed it.
“I thought it was a perfect shot,” O’Hair said. “I thought it was good. I’m posing. When the crowd screamed, I thought it was going to be a cheer, and it was a groan. That’s when I knew. I was a little bit shocked and deflated.”
His shot flew over the bulkhead on the back of the green, almost directly over the flag, and splashed in the lake. It was a couple of yards too far on that line.
“I thought the wind was dead across on 16, so it shouldn’t have been any different at 17,” O’Hair said. “If anything, it should have been a little bit into me.”
That’s why he went with the 9-iron and not the pitching wedge. It was a hair too much — no pun intended.
From the drop zone, O’Hair played again. This wedge shot landed hard, skidded across the green and dribbled over the bulkhead into the water. It was a tough way to finish, but O’Hair went down playing aggressive golf.
“I give him a lot of credit for going for the win,” Mickelson said later. “Sean played some incredible golf today.”
Asked if he’d go at the flag at 17 in the same situation as O’Hair, Mickelson said, “Absolutely.”
Here’s why you should pencil in O’Hair on the U.S. Ryder Cup team next year — he’s got the game, the desire and the fire that the American team needs. When someone pointed out that his 7 at 17 and his bogey at 18 cost him about $750,000, O’Hair didn’t even flinch.
“I’ll make plenty of money in my career,” he said. “I want the crystal.”
Several earlier shots led to the desperate situation at the 17th. He had makeable birdie putts at the 15th and 16th holes that he couldn’t get to drop. “If I make one or both of those putts, 17 is a different story,” O’Hair said. “I play for the middle of the green.”
He missed a good birdie chance at the par-5 11th when his second shot, flying right at the flag, came up just short in the end of the bunker, about 15 feet from the front pin location. His ball was near the edge of the bunker, however, on a slight upslope, and he caught too much sand playing the shot. It came up short on the fringe. He missed the putt and settled for par.
After Mickelson hit a wedge close for birdie at the 11th to take a two-shot lead, he wasn’t able to squeeze out another birdie on the back nine, either. It all came down to the par-3 17th.
“Nobody wants to finish that way,” said Lucas. “Sean will gain more from this than he’ll lose. I told him I was proud of him, he did a good job. Phil really didn’t miss a shot all day. Sean had to play his best, and he tried to get it done.”
It didn’t happen on this Sunday. At 24, he’s likely to have a lot more chances.