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Original Issue

O'Hair Raising

A crunch-time mistake by a nervous young pro? That hardly describes what happened to 24-year-old Sean O'Hair

Life is aboutchoices. The lady or the tiger? Coke or Pepsi? Paper or plastic? ¶ Sean O'Hairhad to make a choice on Sunday evening at the Players Championship. He couldslap a pitching wedge onto the middle of the famous island green, take histwo-putt par and go to the final hole hoping that Phil Mickelson would dosomething crazy on 18. Or he could try to win the tournament. "I was tryingto 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 anine-iron on the 127-yard 17th hole led to two balls in the water, a symphonyof groans, a final round of four-over-par 76 and a net deduction of $747,000from the amount the spindly 24-year-old would've earned if he had protected hissecond-place position.

Those whowitnessed O'Hair's meltdown from the skyboxes and spectator mounds were besidethemselves. The mothers, in particular, wanted to run down and give him acomforting hug. One, because it was Mother's Day, and two, because O'Hair isthe kind of clean-cut, respectful, sincere American lad whom most moms wouldtake in trade for their own never-calls, never-sends-flowers offspring. Andthree, because anybody paying attention knows that O'Hair is the Tour's posterboy for juvenile fortitude, having survived the well-documented malparenting ofa father who made him turn pro at 17 and threatened to sue him for managementfees six years later.

But O'Hair didn'twant anybody's sympathy. He reminded the assembled media that he had missedbirdie putts on 15 and 16, and with only two holes left and Mickelson leadingby two, he had to make something happen. "If I am one shot back, I do notfire 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 makea two-putt par. O'Hair, calculating that Mickelson would probably make no worsethan bogey on 18, decided that he had to birdie the treacherous par-3. "Ihad 128 to cover the bunker, 136 to the pin, and 148 to the back edge," hesaid, and given that the breeze seemed to be right-to-left and that O'Hair'slongest wedge distance is 125 yards--"130, maybe, if I nuke it"--hischoice was almost automatic: nine-iron.

This is where thepracticed second-guesser asks why O'Hair's caddie didn't yank the nine-iron outof his hands and toss it into the pond. One, because Steve Lucas is alsoO'Hair's father-in-law, and two, because O'Hair's own judgment has so faryielded 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 alittle more than two years. And three, because Lucas saw the light of reason inhis son-in-law's eyes. "He made an adult, intelligent decision," Lucassaid. "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 haveactually been an outbound zephyr. O'Hair's tee shot flew out over the water andpassed about a yard to the right and well above the flagstick, eliciting criesof dismay from fans with a side view, before plunging into the water behind thegreen. "I thought I hit a perfect shot," he said. "I was shockedwhen I heard the groan."

O'Hair stood for afew seconds with his head down and his hands on his hips. He then gatheredhimself and marched to the drop area. The distance was now 67 yards to thefront and 87 to the pin, but O'Hair again had to make the choice: middle of thegreen or go for broke. He decided to flight the ball low and spinning with his54-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 hereached the interview room to, "I got kicked in the ass." But when areporter asked O'Hair if he was going to lose sleep over the $747,000 he'dblown on the last two holes, the youngster said, "I'll make plenty of moneyin my career. I want the crystal."

It was a greatanswer. One, because he knew that many of his peers, given such a slim chanceto beat Mickelson, would have played the safer shot, and two, because it showedhe knew the difference between a salaryman and a champion. And three, becauseit served notice that he expects to contend in big tournaments for years tocome. "I wasn't scared of Phil," he said. "I wasn't scared ofwinning."

Most pundits sawit 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 searedin history here when you come unglued on this hole." But no one, Hicksincluded, questioned the young man's game or his character.

Mickelson, whoknows how cruelly the game can treat failures of wit or execution, went out ofhis way to praise O'Hair. "Sean is an incredibly gifted player," hesaid. "I give him a lot of credit for standing on the 17th tee and goingright at the pin." Asked if he had empathy for O'Hair, Mickelson said,"It's not empathy. It's respect."

O'Hair, for hispart, could have chosen to slip away and sulk. Instead, he stayed and answeredreporters' questions, his stoic expression melting occasionally into a wansmile. "It sucks to lose the way I did," he said, "but I'm notgoing to let a result like this affect me or my career. And if I'm in thatsituation again next year, I'm going for the pin again."

He'll probablydouble-check the wind, though.

Asked if he would lose sleep over the $747,000 he'dblown on the last two holes, O'Hair said, "I'LL MAKE PLENTY OF MONEY IN MYCAREER. I WANT THE CRYSTAL." It was a great answer.


Photographs by Robert Beck


O'Hair pressed Mickelson for first for most of the final round but wound upfinishing 11th.


Photographs by Robert Beck


Lucas (left) said that O'Hair made "an adult, intelligent decision" onthe fateful 71st hole.