By DOUG FERGUSON
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Sean O’Hair didn’t look at the water surrounding the 17th green, only the yellow flag that was waving gently 132 yards away.
In any other situation, the safe play is to the middle of the notorious island green on the TPC Sawgrass. But this was late Sunday afternoon at The Players Championship, and O’Hair was two shots behind Phil Mickelson, who already had found land.
O’Hair told his caddie and father-in-law, “I’m not playing for second.’’
Two holes later, he wound up in 11th place.
O’Hair’s hopes ended when his 9-iron flew a yard over the back of the green, making a splash he never saw, leading to a collective groan that he won’t soon forget. His face was awash in utter shock, and he bowed his head as he walked to the drop area.
Then he put another ball in the water, this one skipping toward the back of the green and taking one place hop over the boards. When the hole was over, O’Hair had a quadruple-bogey 7, allowing Mickelson a carefree walk up the 18th hole to victory.
O’Hair also took bogey on the 18th, as he simply tried to get out of Mickelson’s way. The outcome had already been decided. But that extra shot gave him a 76 in the final round, and the difference between runner-up and 11th place was $747,000, which is more than O’Hair earned from his only PGA Tour victory two years ago at the John Deere Classic.
“I’ll make plenty of money in my career,’’ O’Hair said. “I want the crystal.’’
O’Hair, 24, had a one-shot lead over Mickelson going into the final round, and that was erased on the first hole. Mickelson took his first lead with a 15-foot birdie on the seventh, and O’Hair came right back at him, holing an 8-foot par putt on that hole to keep in range, tying Mickelson with an 8-foot birdie of his own on the ninth.
It was only the second time O’Hair had played in the final group, the first time on such a stage, and he handled it well. And even after his forgettable finish, and the terse words out of his mouth about not winning, there were lessons.
“I think I’m going to win here,’’ O’Hair said. “I don’t think it’s an ‘if.’ I think I will win here. I’m not going to let this bother me.’’
It was a wild swing in emotions and expectations from a day earlier.
Late in the third round, he figured his tee shot on the 17th was well over the green, and O’Hair bowed his head and stood there with hand on hip, waiting for the inevitable. Instead, it stopped 5 feet away for the centerpiece of a birdie-birdie-birdie finish to take the lead.
On Sunday, he was posing.
“I thought it was good,’’ he said. “I hit a perfect shot. 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 little bit shocked.’’
No one was more impressed than Mickelson, known for attacking flags when he has to. Mickelson said the wind was toward the island green when they walked to the tee, then felt the wind switch as they got ready to play.
If the wind hadn’t shifted, Mickelson said O’Hair’s tee shot would have been just right.
“I have a lot of respect for him the way he attacked 17,’’ Mickelson said. “Unfortunately, the wind changed a little bit and went from hurting him to helping him, and the ball went long.’’
O’Hair can look back on other mistakes, but not many.
He failed to make birdie from the bunker in front of the 11th green, and he missed birdie putts inside 10 feet on the 15th and 16th holes, as did Mickelson said.
But he doesn’t regret going after the flag on the shortest, and most dangerous, host at Sawgrass.
“I’ m not going to play for the middle of the green, take my two-putt and take second place,’’ O’Hair said. “I was in a good spot to win, and I definitely tried to win. And unfortunately, I got kicked in the teeth.’’