PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Of all the great shots struck Saturday at The Players Championship, Sean O'Hair thought his would turn out the worst.
He had watched Peter Lonard hole out a 5-iron for double eagle on the second hole, the rarest shot in golf. He heard the gallery roar when Phil Mickelson pulled off some magic by hitting out of a
bunker through a gap in the trees no bigger than a kitchen window and onto the 10th green some 159 yards away.
O'Hair watched his 9-iron take flight on the 17th hole and wanted to throw up.
He bowed his head when he felt the wind die. He stuck his hand on his hip as he watched the ball descend from the blue sky to an island green that suddenly looked smaller. And he was so surprised when it stopped 5 feet from the cup for birdie that he slid his tongue out of the corner of his mouth, perhaps too stunned to do anything else.
"I felt like puking," he said.
It was a strange reaction for a guy who is leading the richest tournament in golf.
That turned out to be the centerpiece of a birdie-birdie-birdie finish for O'Hair, the perfect way to polish of a 6-under 66 that gave him a one-shot lead over Mickelson going into the final round of golf's richest tournament.
And it might have prepared him for the anxiety attack Sawgrass tends to deliver to anyone trying to cash in on a $1.62 million prize.
O'Hair was at 9-under 207 and will be paired with Mickelson, who needed a few fortunate bounces for his 69.
Mickelson's tee shot on the par-5 16th caromed out of the trees, allowing him to carve an approach around the trees to 20 feet for a two-putt birdie. His tee shot on the 18th hugged the left side of the lake before finding land, setting up a final birdie.
Now for the final act.
"The last group is going to be fun," Mickelson said.
But this is hardly a two-man show. Not at this golf tournament, and certainly not on this golf course.
Lonard played bogey-free after his double eagle until getting stuck behind a tree on the final hole and dropping a shot for 68. He was two shots behind with former U.S. Amateur champion Jeff Quinney, who shot a tournament-best 64.
Jose Coceres was among five players who had at least a share of the lead, but that changed when his 8-iron hopped over the island green and he took double bogey.
"I just let the pressure of 17 get to me, and I just hit it too hard," Coceres said after his 68.
One guy who took himself out of the tournament was Tiger Woods, who failed to break par for the fifth straight round at The Players. He shot 73 -- leaving him 14 strokes back at 5 over -- and walked off the course without speaking to reporters.
Woods snap-hooked a fairway metal into the water for double bogey on No. 7, pulled his tee shot on the next hole and made another bogey and couldn't make up any ground on a day when everyone else was firing off birdies.
He played with Henrik Stenson, whose eagle-birdie-par finish gave him a 66.
Quinney was on his way to his 64 when the gallery came to life behind the second hole. Lonard had 211 yards to the front of the green, hit a 5-iron and couldn't see when the ball caught the slope and raced toward the hole.
"The reaction said it all," Lonard said. "But I didn't believe it until I picked it out of the hole."
That seemed to set the stage for plenty of excitement at Sawgrass. With only a gentle breeze and several hole locations that allowed for birdies, it was a race to see who could get to the top of the leaderboard and stay there.
Sergio Garcia made a swift climb into contention with eight
birdies in 16 holes, only to finish by pulling a 6-iron into the water for double bogey, and getting defensive when someone asked about the shot.
"I didn't yank it, I just pulled it a little bit," Garcia said. "It went 2 yards into the water. It didn't go 30 yards in the water."
Davis Love III wasted a good round with a double bogey-triple bogey finish. Tom Pernice chipped across the 18th green and into the water on the final hole.
And there is always a nail-biting moment with Mickelson.
He was on the practice range at 8 a.m. -- more than six hours before his tee time -- with swing coach Butch Harmon, and the lesson seemed to pay off as Mickelson kept the ball inside the ropes and his name where everyone could see it. Then came a wayward tee shot
on the par-5 ninth that led to bogey, and a tee shot into the bunker behind trees on the 10th.
Instead of the safe shot, Mickelson went through a tiny gap in the trees and onto the front of the green, escaping with par.
"It was plenty big for a ball to fit through," he said. "It was a tough enough shot where I felt like Bones [caddie Jim Mackay] would try to talk me out of it."
O'Hair never dreamed of a birdie-birdie-birdie finish. After a three-putt bogey on the 15th, he only wanted to hit the next fairway. His approach came up just short of the green, setting up a simple pitch for birdie.
Then came the 17th, where O'Hair figured he would be another victim.
"I just thought it was a good, solid 9-iron," O'Hair said. "I hit it exactly the way I wanted to, but as I hit it, the wind died. I was like, 'That's in the water.' It ended up being a great shot."
The most surprising contender might be Quinney.
He shot 83-80 last week at Wachovia and was in the middle of the pack going into the weekend at Sawgrass.
"This is not a course where you really want to come in struggling with your game, because Pete Dye is known for intimidating golf shots," Quinney said. "Golf is just a crazy game."