The Golfer Who Killed Osama bin Laden
In celebration of Golf Digest's 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.
A decade ago, if there had been a vote on which golf writer to send out to kill the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, there’s no question who would have been elected. Tom Callahan, the ex-Marine, even today at age 71, would have been our man.
I remember taking a side trip during the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama with a bunch of writers who ferried across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Arabian bazaar that still is Tangier, Morocco. During lunch it was pointed out to Callahan that some of the local merchants had been hassling us with anti-Semitic insults. Callahan’s eyes widened, but he said nothing. On the way back to our next stop, a camel ride, we walked past the same merchants when all of a sudden there was a commotion behind me and one of the natives was knocked out cold on the ground. Our tour guides grabbed us by the elbows and rushed us into a waiting bus. When we took our seats, I turned quizzically to Callahan, who said smiling: “Every Irishman’s a Jew when called one.”
He may be a rough-and-tumble Hemingway type—one of our former CEOs asked Tom to wear a lumberjack shirt when he spoke to clients—but he writes with the soul of a poet and the observation skills of a submarine commander. We always picked Callahan for assignments with a whiff of danger. I once sent him to hunt for the best friend of Green Beret Earl Woods lost in the Vietnam War, and Tom came back a month later with the hair-raising truth of how Tiger really got his name. This story appeared originally in February 2015, shortly after it was revealed that Navy SEAL Rob O’Neill was the soldier who took out Osama bin Laden in 2011. So it wasn’t Callahan after all. —Jerry Tarde
"There was a golf course nearby," says Rob O'Neill, a member of SEAL Team 6. "I can't say for certain that I saw it, because I had a lot going on in my head. But I knew where it was, and I kind of looked for it off to my left on our final approach to Osama bin Laden's house. A golf course. It made the mission feel, well, different. As far as I knew, there hadn't been any golf courses in Afghanistan or Iraq. We're going into a place where they have golf courses, I thought. Abbottabad must be a civilized place." And for about the thousandth time, he asked himself, How did a guy from Butte, Montana, ever end up here?
He loves Butte. "Center of the universe," he says. "Two high schools. I played basketball for one of them." Under his dad's tutelage, unofficially. Tom O'Neill was a stockbroker. "But everything in Butte revolved around hunting season," Rob says. "Elk. The only time we'd shoot a deer is if we couldn't find an elk." They ate the meat, of course. Steaks, stews, sausages, jerky. The O'Neill specialty was a cube of venison, a slab of cream cheese, and a raw jalapeño pepper wrapped in bacon, dubbed "a spicy, creamy deer pig."
"The real point of hunting," O'Neill says, "was being with my dad. He got divorced, remarried—painful, obviously. Being outdoors together was our way back to each other."
Rob hit a few golf balls as a boy. "Driving ranges, that sort of thing," he says. But not many.
At 19 he joined the Navy with a guarantee, in writing, of a tryout to qualify for SEALs training. Sixteen years later, during O'Neill's exit interview, a military psychiatrist ("We already know you're crazy; we just want to find out what flavor you are") noticed he had left the space beside "hobbies" blank. "You need to find a stress-reliever," he told me, "and recommended golf. Now, I still question how in the world golf is supposed to relieve stress. I mean, being outside, walking, is beautiful. The smells, the sounds, the quiet. Fine. Your buddies, their jokes. Good. But sooner or later you have to hit that little ball."
He's an absolute beginner with a bright new set of Titleist clubs that happened to come with an enchanted 6-iron.
"You know how people say that one great shot a round is enough to bring you back? I'm at the stage where I can hit that shot maybe three times in a round, usually with my magic 6-iron, and it's enough. I took a lesson recently in Houston. And there's a guy I know named Todd Short who teaches me a little. 'Shorty.' It's coming along. I'm looking forward to when I'm not so busy and can really jump in. But I'm already hooked. The first time I parred a par 5, it was right up there with rescuing people."
O'Neill is four months younger than Tiger Woods, who turned 39 on the second-to-last day of December. If Rob has no ambition to be Tiger, Tiger once had an ambition to be Rob. ("I'll switch with him," O'Neill says.)
In an email exchange not long after the Escalade hit the fireplug, Tiger replied to a flippant questioner with a thoughtful answer:
"How close did you come to joining the military?"
"For nearly my entire life," he wrote back, two days later, "I've wondered what it would be like to be in the military. One of the questions I hear most at my Foundation is, what would you be if you weren't a pro golfer? I answer the same way every time. I'd be in Special Ops. Maybe Green Beret like Pop. I know some people that are Army Special Forces, and I'm amazed at what they do. I'm proud to call them my friends."
Woods didn't merely play Walter Mitty at recreational sky-diving schools, he mixed with real Navy SEALs, tumbling out of airplanes, heating up machine guns and even singing cadence in training runs. "Deep down," Hank Haney said, "he wanted to be a Navy SEAL. For sure that was on his list. I don't know how close he came. How close is close? But I thought at the time there was a good chance it was going to happen."
From what O'Neill knows of Woods, what chance would Rob have given him of making it?
"You never know who's going to make it and who's not," he says, "but obviously he has some of the prerequisites, starting with raw strength. I've heard he can bench-press a lot of weight. Is that true? He obviously has the work ethic, the focus, the drive. I don't know how funny he is. [The few closest to Tiger say he can be hilarious.] You'd be surprised how important that is."
Woods might be too individualistic. At Ryder Cups, he hasn't been an especially successful teammate.
"That's OK," O'Neill says. "That can be taught. When he's with six other guys carrying his share of a several-hundred-pound log in the water at night, he'd learn what teamwork means. Really the only question is, would he be willing to drown?"
Not almost drown. Drown.
"That's the biggest thing that washes guys out of SEAL school. You have to near-drown a whole bunch of times and completely drown once or twice. According to how many minutes it takes to bring you back to life, that's how they can tell if you really drowned. The point is, you're free to quit at any time. And you probably won't be surprised to learn, people tend to change when you tie them up and throw them in the pool. As the saying goes, a bullet never lies, either. When you get shot at, the truth comes out. And there's nothing in this world easier than quitting. But then Tiger hasn't been much of a quitter, has he?"
THE RAID ON BIN LADEN
The "lot going on" in O'Neill's head during SEAL Team 6's 90-minute flight from Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Abbottabad in Pakistan began with numbers and ended with words.
"I was counting up to a thousand," he says. "Some guys pray, I'm sure. Others listen to their iPods. I count. Five-hundred-fifty-six, 557, 558, 559 ... until we turned into Pakistani airspace and, I don't know why, but I stopped counting and started repeating what George W. Bush said on 9/11: 'Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended.' I said that over and over in my head until we landed."
The 23 SEALs on the mission, Operation Neptune Spear, May 2, 2011, wouldn't have been surprised if bin Laden's house had exploded when they entered. In fact, they were surprised that it didn't.
O'Neill was on "the train," as the SEALs call the line, rushing up the stairs to the second and third floors. "But the point man stopped at the landing, and everyone else went right and left to clean threats on the second floor, leaving just the two of us to go on. At the top of the stairwell, the guy on point went through a curtain and, encountering two females, grabbed them and fell on them."
It must have been like throwing himself on a hand grenade.
"That's exactly what it was like," O'Neill says. Because they had to presume the women were wearing suicide vests and were willing, maybe even hoping, to be martyred.
"I turned right," he says, "and there he was, Osama bin Laden, on his feet. He had his hands on his wife's shoulders, looking a little confused, steering her toward the commotion, groping his way in the dark. It was really dark."
And only the SEALs were wearing night-vision goggles.
"Because of his act of not surrendering, he was a threat. He could have ignited a suicide vest or a house-borne explosive device any second. So I shot him in the face twice, and he went down. And I shot him in the face again."
They had heard he was tall, but he was even taller than they expected. Back in Afghanistan, someone stretched out beside him to gauge bin Laden's height at 6-4, at least. "He looked thinner than his photographs, too," O'Neill says, "maybe because his beard was trimmer. He was wearing one of those white hats. His head was shaved but had grown out to a stubble, almost a crew cut."
Some final chores remained, like collecting bin Laden's computers.
"On the first floor, the first room on the right," O'Neill says, "there was a little girl about 5 years old, too out of it from fear even to cry. So I picked her up and brought her out in the hallway and found a woman to hand her to."
In another room, a boy of 2, bin Laden's youngest son, was standing behind a bed, barely tall enough to see or be seen over the mattress. Rob scooped him up, too.
Did they make him think of his own kids?
"I don't talk about my kids," he says.
But, after a moment passes, he murmurs, "When you see kids like that in a situation like that, of course, how can you not think of your own kids? I can see those two little kids still, anytime I shut my eyes."
One helicopter had crashed on the way in, so Rob was delighted to hear "we wouldn't have to steal cars and drive home." Backups flew them to Jalalabad and then to the nearby Bagram Airfield.
"So I'm in a hangar at Bagram," O'Neill says, "and President Obama comes on TV to make the live announcement: 'Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida ...'
"When he said, 'Osama bin Laden,' I looked down at bin Laden on the floor. He's right there. I thought, Could it be more unreal? This guy did one of the most evil things in the history of the world, and now he's dead at my feet, and I'm here eating a sandwich, and I'm from Butte, Montana.
"'OK, Mister President,' I said out loud, 'you can go ahead and say no Americans were harmed anytime now.' Finally he did. Our families back home could breathe again."
The CIA analyst who would anonymously become a film heroine greeted the returning heroes in Jalalabad.
"I don't talk too much about her," O'Neill says. "What I will say is, she's one of the most impressive people—not women, people—I've ever met. Very driven. This is what she was here to do. And confident. Even a little cocky, but in a great way. She was dead certain about everything. 'I'm not guessing,' she told us. 'This building. Third floor. That's where he is. A hundred percent. And you'll run into his son [23-year-old] Khalid on the stairs on your way up.' " Khalid died that night, too, on the stairs, cradling an AK-47.
Could she have been a SEAL?
"She would have been too tough to be a SEAL," Rob says. "We have soft sides."
At the suggestion of the point man, he took the magazine out of his gun and presented it to her. "There were 27 bullets left in it," he says.
Was she emotional?
"No. We walked over to bin Laden's body [the body bag had been unzipped], and I asked her, 'Is that your guy?' She looked down and said calmly, 'Yes. I guess I'm out of a job.' "
THE RESCUE OF CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Like the woman from the CIA, O'Neill can recognize himself in a lot of movies. "I was the lead jumper," he says, "the first guy out of the plane, in the rescue of [Maersk Alabama Captain] Richard Phillips from Somali pirates. In my very first deployment with SEAL Team 6, we hiked four days through Afghanistan's mountains looking for [SEAL Team 10] survivors of Operation Red Wings, the ambush in Shuryek Valley. We found only Marcus Luttrell alive, the 'Lone Survivor.' There were so many missions. We went after Bowe Bergdahl, too," before a prisoner swap with the Taliban brought Sgt. Bergdahl home.
Though they never get the tattoos right, on balance he likes most of the films. "They're Hollywooded up a bit," he says. "Why wouldn't they be?
"For realism, I think 'Lone Survivor' is the greatest war movie since 'Saving Private Ryan.' I've been in gunfights in the mountains of Afghanistan, and if you want to know what it looks like and sounds like, that's pretty good. 'Zero Dark Thirty' was interesting, entertaining. I enjoyed it. When they show the SEALs, I see every mistake, but I don't mind. They do things tactically we wouldn't do. They say things we wouldn't say. But that's OK.
" 'Captain Phillips' was probably the best at making SEALs look like SEALs. You noticed, after the shots were taken, the guys just left. It's like, Time to go home. I talked to one of the snipers. I told him, 'Hey, man, you were just part of the biggest operation in SEAL Team history.' And that was true at the time because it was before bin Laden. All he said was, 'Yeah, can we go home now?' "
How does one retire from a job like this?
"It's weird to think about it," O'Neill says, two years later, "but the adrenaline you feel in gunfights can wear out or wear off. You know that phrase about a dangerous situation, 'It sure got my attention.' Well, believe it or not, it can lose your attention, too. You can become complacent, even under fire. And that's the time to stop. After the bin Laden raid, I thought, When am I ever going to get this excited again? Excitement's the wrong word, though. Accomplishment. When am I ever going to feel this sense of accomplishment again? I've always believed that everyone is put on this earth to do one special thing. You just don't know what it is. Now you tell me, is there a bigger achievement out there somewhere, a better feeling? I just don't think so. I could have put in the extra four years in the Navy to reach 20. I did an extra four months just because I thought that was the right thing to do. But this isn't the kind of job where you hang on for a pension."
Of course, more than a few SEALs think going public was the wrong thing for O'Neill to do. Rear Admiral Brian Losey, head of the Naval Special Warfare Command, wrote in an open letter: "A critical tenet of our ethos is, 'I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.' "
But O'Neill is at peace with his decision. "I don't justify my behavior by anyone else's behavior," he says. "I'm assuming some SEALs aren't happy with it, and that's fine. Some I haven't heard from, even though I've kept the same contact information. But others have reached out to me and are on my side."
Should only the Secretaries of Defense, the Generals and the Admirals retire and write books?
"I'm going around the country giving speeches," O'Neill says. "I'm telling the story. I'm enjoying it, and I happen to think it's good for the public to know some of these details. Classified material, no. SEAL tactics, no. But I don't think it's a bad thing for our enemies to know we'll come get them."
Put most simply, he is doing it because he wants to, and to make a living, presumably a rather good one at the moment.
"What are you supposed to do," his father asked a reporter for London's Daily Mail, "when you come out of the military after such service? Become a greeter at Walmart?"
Rob's only regret about retiring is "missing the guys. The bus ride to the two-mile ocean swim on Friday. The jabbing back and forth. The laughter. I always will."
He won't miss kissing his children goodbye, knowing it might be for the last time. Before the bin Laden raid, he wrote farewell letters and entrusted them to a non-SEAL friend to hold. He won't miss that either.
After writing The Satanic Verses, a fearful Salman Rushdie tiptoed from bush to bush for years. Isn't O'Neill afraid of fame and repercussions?
"I don't worry," he says. "I'm prepared. I understand security."
Tom O'Neill has joined him on the speaking trail. "We're a good team," Rob says, and his dad agrees. "Of course Rob swears to this day that I taught him how to shoot a layup off the wrong foot. It's not true. Otherwise, we get along pretty well. I don't want to be Michael Phelps' mother, I just want to support Rob in whatever way I can, driving the bus, anything that needs to be done."
And Tom has bought a set of used clubs. "Now that Rob's into it, I've got to try," he says. "You know, Evel Knievel came from Butte. His wife, Krystal, still lives there." Around town, the late motorcycle daredevil is as well-remembered for golf as for compound fractures. "They say he would bet $10,000," Tom says, "on a single putt."
In the ultimate example of father-son solidarity, without even losing a bet, the elder O'Neill has an appointment pending with the wonderfully named Joey Nobody for the purposes of acquiring his first tattoo.
Meanwhile, Rob is so covered with ink he could be hung in the Museum of Modern Art.
SEAL numbers and insignias, Native American warriors, feathers, dream catchers and, winding around the left biceps, those words from former President George W. Bush, delivered on September 11, 2001:
"Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended."