Tiger Woods entered the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a five shot deficit to make up again 54 hole leader Sean O’Hair. To that point in the tournament, O’Hair had played almost flawless golf among a field that was struggling to corral the Bay Hill layout. Even if it were played at its true par of 72, scoring at Arnie’s place still would have seemed out of whack.
The final threesome, though – with former Masters champion Zach Johnson – proved to be the downfall for O’Hair. Among the players that finished in the top ten on the final leaderboard, O’Hair was the only player other than Jason Gore to post a score worse than 70. In other words, as fantastic as Woods was to post 67 and win the tournament for the sixth time, Sean O’Hair served it up to him.
O’Hair’s struggles with the 54 hole lead are nothing new. In three other PGA Tour events in which he has held the third round lead, O’Hair has failed to win all of them. Both of his PGA Tour wins – ’05 John Deere Classic & ’08 Transitions Championship – were come from behind victories.
His most famous loss has to be the 2007 Players Championship. O’Hair entered the final round with a two shot advantage. Trailing Phil Mickelson by a shot on the 17th hole, O’Hair pumped his tee ball into the water twice en route to losing the championship and finishing tied for 11th place. It could be argued that the failure to win really had more to do with a gimmick hole than O’Hair.
Still, to fail now in three other tries with the 54 hole lead indicates a pattern of struggling to succeed in the most optimal position entering the final round.
It could be easy to simply chalk up this loss at the Arnold Palmer Invitational to the allure and intimidation of Tiger Woods. Perhaps that is part of the reason for the collapse.
Then again, Zach Johnson was one-under par in the final threesome with Woods. Johnson certainly faced no pressure from Woods because he was not in contention until the final two or three holes, when he secured third place with great play.
It was on O’Hair to maintain his massive lead, win for the first time with the third round lead in tow, and stare down the best player in the universe to prevent him from making his comeback victory happen on O’Hair’s watch. Admittedly, that can produce a lot of pressure.
O’Hair maintained throughout the press conference on Saturday night that he would play his own game, ignore Woods for better or worse, and do everything he could to win. Unfortunately, O’Hair never really found the game that got him into that coveted position. He flared to the right almost all day. Consistently short on putts, O’Hair struggled to hole out at crucial times to stave off Woods’ charge. O’Hair may very well have played his own game, but it simply was not there. With no good play to focus on, O’Hair’s mind was likely sucked into the vortex of Tiger Woods’ intimidating aura.
Sean O’Hair is a very talented kid. He is in his mid-twenties and will have many years on Tour to figure out how to win while leading the pack. O’Hair, though, is not unique in his struggles to learn how to win. In fact, he is among a group of twenty-somethings that cannot seem to thrive when the pressure is applied.
It may have something to do with the pace of play of O’Hair and his peers. O’Hair is one of the slowest players on the PGA Tour. As the round drew out and Woods grew closer, O’Hair became even more deliberate in his routine. The longer that O’Hair took to play, the worse the results seemed to be.
The old Bobby Jones saying is that “golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.” O’Hair may well psych himself out in the time that it takes for him to select a club, practice his new mechanics, visualize the shot, get all of the bad thoughts out of his head, and swing the club. For O’Hair, sports psychology may be failing him because he is using it to an extreme.
I have always found that I play my best golf when the sun is about to set. The only reason that I can think of to explain the trend is that I play quicker and with better focus as the sun is setting. If I can play both quickly and well, then I’m more likely to finish my round.
It seems apropos, then, to offer this as advice to Sean O’Hair on the day after the Arnold Palmer Invitational was stolen from him in the dusk:
Stop burning daylight.