O'Hair Raising

O’Hair Raising

Mickelson passed O'Hair early in the final round, but he couldn't shake him until the very end.
Robert Beck/SI

Life is about choices. The lady or the tiger? Coke or Pepsi? Paper or plastic? Sean O’Hair had to make a choice on Sunday evening at the Players Championship. He could slap a pitching wedge onto the middle of the famous island green, take his two-putt par and go to the final hole hoping that Phil Mickelson would do something crazy on 18. Or he could try to win the tournament. “I was trying to win the tournament,” O’Hair said afterward. He said it, unfortunately, from the pallid, inglorious depths of 11th place. O’Hair’s bold choice of a nine-iron on the 127-yard 17th hole led to two balls in the water, a symphony of groans, a final round of four-over-par 76 and a net deduction of $747,000 from the amount the spindly 24-year-old would’ve earned if he had protected his second-place position.

Those who witnessed O’Hair’s meltdown from the skyboxes and spectator mounds were beside themselves. The mothers, in particular, wanted to run down and give him a comforting hug. One, because it was Mother’s Day, and two, because O’Hair is the kind of clean-cut, respectful, sincere American lad whom most moms would take in trade for their own never-calls, never-sends-flowers offspring. And three, because anybody paying attention knows that O’Hair is the Tour’s poster boy for juvenile fortitude, having survived the well-documented malparenting of a father who made him turn pro at 17 and threatened to sue him for management fees six years later.

But O’Hair didn’t want anybody’s sympathy. He reminded the assembled media that he had missed birdie putts on 15 and 16, and with only two holes left and Mickelson leading by two, he had to make something happen. “If I am one shot back, I do not fire at that pin,” he said. “I do what Phil did.”

What Phil did, hitting first at 17, was play a wedge to the fat of the green, content to make a two-putt par. O’Hair, calculating that Mickelson would probably make no worse than bogey on 18, decided that he had to birdie the treacherous par-3. “I had 128 to cover the bunker, 136 to the pin, and 148 to the back edge,” he said, and given that the breeze seemed to be right-to-left and that O’Hair’s longest wedge distance is 125 yards-“130, maybe, if I nuke it”-his choice was almost automatic: nine-iron.

This is where the practiced second-guesser asks why O’Hair’s caddie didn’t yank the nine-iron out of his hands and toss it into the pond. One, because Steve Lucas is also O’Hair’s father-in-law, and two, because O’Hair’s own judgment has so far yielded a PGA Tour win (the 2005 John Deere Classic), seven top 10 finishes, ’05 rookie-of-the-year honors and more than $4.6 million in prize money in a little more than two years. And three, because Lucas saw the light of reason in his son-in-law’s eyes. “He made an adult, intelligent decision,” Lucas said. “And he was trying to win the tournament.”

The breeze at 17, alas, tends to swirl, and what looked like a crosswind from the tee may have actually been an outbound zephyr. O’Hair’s tee shot flew out over the water and passed about a yard to the right and well above the flagstick, eliciting cries of dismay from fans with a side view, before plunging into the water behind the green. “I thought I hit a perfect shot,” he said. “I was shocked when I heard the groan.”

O’Hair stood for a few seconds with his head down and his hands on his hips. He then gathered himself and marched to the drop area. The distance was now 67 yards to the front and 87 to the pin, but O’Hair again had to make the choice: middle of the green or go for broke. He decided to flight the ball low and spinning with his 54-degree wedge, that being a shot that could bite and hold. Only it didn’t; his ball skidded past the flagstick and rolled off the back of the green. “I got kicked in the teeth,” he said, amending that by the time he reached the interview room to, “I got kicked in the ass.” But when a reporter asked O’Hair if he was going to lose sleep over the $747,000 he’d blown on the last two holes, the youngster said, “I’ll make plenty of money in my career. I want the crystal.”

It was a great answer. One, because he knew that many of his peers, given such a slim chance to beat Mickelson, would have played the safer shot, and two, because it showed he knew the difference between a salaryman and a champion. And three, because it served notice that he expects to contend in big tournaments for years to come. “I wasn’t scared of Phil,” he said. “I wasn’t scared of winning.”

Most pundits saw it O’Hair’s way and declined to call him a choker. NBC announcer Dan Hicks, watching the second shot topple into the water, said, “You’re just seared in history here when you come unglued on this hole.” But no one, Hicks included, questioned the young man’s game or his character.

Mickelson, who knows how cruelly the game can treat failures of wit or execution, went out of his way to praise O’Hair. “Sean is an incredibly gifted player,” he said. “I give him a lot of credit for standing on the 17th tee and going right at the pin.” Asked if he had empathy for O’Hair, Mickelson said, “It’s not empathy. It’s respect.”

O’Hair, for his part, could have chosen to slip away and sulk. Instead, he stayed and answered reporters’ questions, his stoic expression melting occasionally into a wan smile. “It sucks to lose the way I did,” he said, “but I’m not going to let a result like this affect me or my career. And if I’m in that situation again next year, I’m going for the pin again.”

He’ll probably double-check the wind, though.