PALM HARBOR — Sean O'Hair was just another grinder on the PGA Tour when he arrived at Innisbrook last year for the PODS Championship. His highest finish in the five tournaments before was a tie for 49th, and he had missed consecutive cuts.
He came to the Copperhead Course hoping to find something, anything, that would give him an ounce of confidence. It came two days before Round 1. O'Hair and his coach at the time, Steve Dahlby, found a flaw in his swing.
It was fixed, and the ball started going straight. O'Hair took the new swing to the par-71, 7,340-yard course, and four rounds later, he won. It was his first win since 2005, and it was the highlight of a roller-coaster year.
"My mind-set last year was to just find my game,'' O'Hair said. "I was playing awful. I'd only made about $43,000 coming into this event. I was trying to find my swing. We found it on the range on Tuesday, and I hit the ball great all week.''
O'Hair's 69-71-71-69 earned him an invitation to the Masters. He went on to win more than $2 million in his fourth full season on tour. O'Hair, 26, is doing much better in his lead up to this year's Innisbrook tournament, now called the Transitions Championship. He has won $958,342 in six events and is 13th on the money list.
Still, there have been some downs.
An accident, another swing change
On the Thursday before the 2008 U.S. Open, O'Hair was driving to the gym in his home of West Chester, Pa., for a 7 a.m. workout. He had just purchased a six-speed Mustang Shelby and was new to driving a stick shift.
While shifting from first to second gear on a slick road, he lost control and spun out. He hit a power pole head-on at 30 mph. His seat belt held him in the car, but it also caused pain in his sternum. He was out of the U.S. Open and out for a month total.
"That was a big setback,'' he said. "It was at the time when I play the best, in the summer. I was looking forward to playing in the U.S. Open.''
O'Hair concluded during his downtime that his game was too inconsistent. He dropped longtime coach Dahlby during the winter and went with Sean Foley. They reconstructed his swing, and the results continue to be positive.
"I just didn't feel like I knew where I was going with my game,'' O'Hair said. ''I went with Sean Foley, and I've learned more about my golf swing in a half-year than I have my whole life. Normally when you change your swing, you struggle, but I've actually improved. Everything in my game has improved. It gets me fired up. It's an exciting time for me right now.''
Playing with confidence
With a swing he can trust, on a course he loves to play, O'Hair is a player to watch this week. No golfer has won the Palm Harbor tournament in consecutive years. Veteran Fred Funk said O'Hair is good enough to be on top of the leaderboard again.
"He's a good kid,'' Funk, 52, said. "He's long. Long as can be. He has a good, solid game. He's the prototype golfer out here now. He's just a machine. He really knows how to strike the golf ball, and when he gets it going, he really gets it going.''
O'Hair started 2009 with a fourth-place finish at the Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii. He has not finished outside the top 25 this season. The past two tournaments he played were World Golf Championship events against the best in the world.
His confidence could not be higher. "This year I've been playing really well,'' he said. "I've got to keep the expectations down a little bit. I feel very comfortable on this course. I love the area. I've played a lot of golf here. It's just of matter of expecting too much out of myself to where I don't play my game. The game is there. I just have to step out of my own way.''