O'Meara makes magic all his own Masters, British winner confirms what golfers know


SEATTLE -- He is not John Daly or Tiger Woods. He does not wow you with his swing or his looks or his fan club, which is probably along the lines of Bill Gates'. He is a golfer, the way a golfer is supposed to look, which means a receding hairline and a protruding midsection and a soft, round face.

Mark O'Meara is 41, a father and husband who lives in a wealthy gated community. His outlet in life is washing his cars. He's also the best golfer in the world right now.

Mark O'Meara is the best golfer in the world.

For some reason, it's hard to reconcile that thought. You think of the best, and you think of crazy people who wake up at 4 a.m. and walk four miles uphill to the driving range to hit 7-irons until their fingers swell to the size of their thumbs. You think of the best, and you think of Einstein's hair or Jordan's competitive fire or Dylan's voice. You think of the best, and you think of people you look at and say, "Wow."

You look at O'Meara. You probably say, "Oh." There is nothing to set him apart, nothing to distinguish him.

Except for one thing. This week at Sahalee Golf Club in suburban Redmond, O'Meara is looking to win his third major championship of the season, the PGA Championship. He has already won the Masters and the British Open. The last player to win three majors in a season: Ben Hogan in 1953.

O'Meara and Hogan. In the same sentence. Where did this come from?

"He holes a putt at the Masters and then the next thing you know, he's one of the great players in the game," said Davis Love. "That kind of snuck up on everybody. But it just kind of confirmed what the players have always known, that Mark O'Meara is one of the great players of all time."

O'Meara doesn't put himself in that class. He considers himself very good. Consistent. He had won 14 tournaments before this year. He defeated John Cook in 1979 in Cleveland to win the U.S. Amateur. He's always been someone to watch, someone with the potential to do this.

But that potential tends to die after a while. New faces come along. O'Meara became known as that guy who's friends with Tiger Woods. He became known as a player who could win the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic but couldn't stand up to the challenge of the Masters.

And now this. On the final day of the Masters, he outplayed Fred Couples and David Duval. On the final day of the British Open, he beat Brian Watts in a playoff.

"The percentage of winning any golf tournament is very small," O'Meara said. "It's all about hanging in there and that's what I've done."

At the Masters this year, O'Meara told the story of a waitress at a restaurant who insisted he was Mark McCumber. He was one of those guys who blended in with the rest. He was the one kids begged for autographs, then looked at it and wondered, "Who?"

Even now, after all of this, O'Meara is not exactly a super star. The fresh faces still dominate the headlines. The kids still follow Tiger. Neither "The Tonight Show" nor David Letterman's show were interested in having O'Meara on after his wins. Instead, Jay Leno talked to amateur Matt Kuchar.

None of this bothers O'Meara. He was happy washing cars be fore, taking care of his kids, playing golf with the other celebrities who live in his gated community, people like Woods and Ken Griffey.

He did not envy the attention they got. He did not envy the expectations. He had a hard enough time dealing with the criticism he got about never winning a major before this year.

"It's a vicious circle," he said. "I win the second major, and it's like OK, can he win the third major? If I don't play good for the rest of my life, it will be, 'How come you can't play good any more?' "

But even if it never happens again, even if this is all the magic O'Meara has in him, it's been something. He's gone from the average golfer to much more.

"You don't remember sometimes who finishes second, third, fourth or fifth," he said. "You remember who wins the golf tournament."

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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