It's O'Meara on the double British playoff victory earns Masters champ 2nd major in 100 days

July 20, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SOUTHPORT, England -- Mark O'Meara didn't get the biggest ovation yesterday at Royal Birkdale during the final round of the 127th British Open. He didn't make the most dramatic putt, chip in from the rough or nearly hole out from a bunker.

All he did was take home the old claret jug.

O'Meara's afternoon -- and evening -- on the Lancashire coast was much like the first 17 years of his PGA Tour career: steady but unspectacular. He left the excitement to a couple of younger players, Tiger Woods and British teen-age amateur Justin Rose. He left the tougher shots to journeyman Brian Watts.

All O'Meara did was win the second major of his 18-year career, the second in three months.

A 2-under-par 68 had left O'Meara at even-par 280 and ultimately tied with Watts, who needed to save par from a bunker on the last hole of regulation and nearly won with an awkward 45-foot blast to within a foot. It was the first time that the winner finished even-par after 72 holes since Greg Norman's victory at Turnberry in 1986.

A four-hole aggregate playoff with Watts, a 32-year-old Asian Tour star, didn't have the same electricity as O'Meara's victory at the Masters earlier this year, where he made a 20-footer on the 72nd hole to win by a shot. This time, a 4-foot birdie on the first playoff hole gave O'Meara a lead he wouldn't relinquish. Watts missed a 3 1/2 -foot birdie putt on that hole, and a 10-footer on the second playoff hole.

"There's a lot on the line in a major championship," O'Meara said. "The first thought that came into my mind was, you play so hard for a major championship, you play so hard for 72 holes, you go into a playoff, if you lose the playoff, you just say, 'Hey, at least I gave it a good try.' Deep down inside, you're going to be pretty disappointed. I didn't want to be disappointed today."

O'Meara wound up winning by two shots after Watts, trying to hole out from a bunker adjacent to the one from which he hit an incredible shot to help save par in regulation, sailed his last-ditch attempt over the flag and to the back of the green. He made bogey and O'Meara simply two-putted from 18 feet for par.

The defeat was difficult for Watts, who had led since the second round and had played steadily yesterday. But it did not come without its rewards. The second-place check for $329,000 means that Watts will finish in the top 125 on the PGA Tour money list and will be given a one-year exemption if he wants it.

"Obviously if you would have told me I would have been in a playoff at the Open championship at the beginning of the week, I wouldn't have believed you," said Watts, an 11-time winner in Asia who finished 184th during the 1991 season on the PGA Tour. "I am happy to be here. Also I'm disappointed that I didn't win because I had the opportunity to do it today. But I'm still proud of myself."

In his victory speech a few minutes later on the 18th green, O'Meara first congratulated Rose, the 17-year-old who won the hearts of his countrymen throughout the week and capped off the best performance by an amateur in the British Open in 45 years by holing out from the rough from 30 yards to shoot 1-under 69, finishing at 2-over. O'Meara congratulated Watts for his bunker shot at 18 in regulation.

And he told the huge crowd surrounding the green how wonderful a victory it was.

"All I can say is that this golf course has been very good to Mark O'Meara and his family," said O'Meara, who won a tournament here in 1987 and finished third in the 1991 British Open.

Whether he wanted it or not, yesterday's victory gave O'Meara ** much more than the $520,000, which pushed him to over $10 million in career earnings, and made him an almost certain lock for Player of the Year. It also gives O'Meara a place in major championship golf history.

At 41, he becomes the oldest player to win two majors in the same year, eclipsing the accomplishment of Jack Nicklaus, who won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 1980, and Ben Hogan, who won all but the PGA in 1953. Both were 40. He also became the first player to win two majors in the same year since Nick Price won the British Open and PGA back-to-back in 1994.

O'Meara can become the first player to win three majors in the same year since Hogan. O'Meara's chance will come when he plays this year's PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Wash., next month.

Asked if he feels as if his victories at the Masters and British Open should change his status, O'Meara said, "Like I said at Augusta, I think I'm a very nice player, a good player. I don't classify myself as a great player. That puts a lot of pressure on you. You know great players are players like Jack Nicklaus, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. You can go on to Sam Snead and down the list, Arnold Palmer. I mean players who won a lot of championships and have been great ambassadors to the game."

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