O'Meara's '98 roll brings a new role

Masters: Mark O'Meara boosted his confidence last year by winning the first two major titles of his career at age 41. But as defending champ at Augusta, he said he expects to feel the pressure this week.

April 04, 1999|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN STAFF

As accomplished a golfer as Mark O'Meara was a year ago, heading into the Masters he was thought of mostly for what he had not done -- winning a major championship.

He was known for doing other things.

For being the so-called "King of Pebble Beach," both as a U.S. Amateur champion there and for four of his 14 titles on the PGA Tour.

For being the Florida neighbor, confidante and mentor of Tiger Woods, then the defending champion at Augusta National.

"They probably thought, `Hey, he's 41, he's over the hill,' " O'Meara recalled recently. "It wasn't the end of the world to me [that he hadn't won a major]."

In many ways, O'Meara's world has changed dramatically since he made birdie putts on the final two holes to win last year's Masters by one shot.

It gave him the confidence to win another major, which O'Meara did last summer with his playoff victory in the British Open at Royal Birkdale.

It gave him the clout to enhance what had been an already lucrative package of endorsement and appearance fees around the world.

It gave him a chance at being named the PGA Tour's Player of the Year, an honor that he narrowly won over David Duval in a season that also included a fourth-place finish in the PGA Championship.

And it raised the stakes going into the 63rd Masters, which begins Thursday.

"I think there's a little bit more pressure," O'Meara, now 42, said during a national teleconference last month. "People will be keeping their eye on me a little closer."

Nobody was watching O'Meara going into Augusta last year. Two weeks before, O'Meara had finished tied for 42nd at the Players Championship. In 13 previous trips to Augusta, O'Meara had finished in the Top 10 once -- a tie for fourth in 1992.

And then there was the matter of an opening-round 2-over par 74.

"He had totally lost his confidence in his putting," said Hank Haney, O'Meara's coach since 1982.

It was Haney's tip on the practice green after the first round that turned around O'Meara's week. Haney said that when O'Meara is having trouble lining up putts, his eyes tend to stray to the right.

"Whether it was [a change in] technique or mind-set or both doesn't really matter," Haney said last week from his golf academy in Dallas. "What mattered was the result."

O'Meara's scores steadily went down, his confidence soared and there he was, walking to the 17th tee Sunday, talking to caddie Jerry Higgenbothem about finishing birdie-birdie to win.

Of course, the only player who had ever done that at the Masters was Arnold Palmer.

"For some reason I said to him, `You know, I'm going to birdie the last two holes and win this sucker," O'Meara said. "And he kind of looked at me, not with a shocked mind, but he said, `Yeah, let's go.' "

A year later, O'Meara admitted it was out of character.

It was something that Woods might have said in the same situation. Considering how much of O'Meara had rubbed off on Woods, maybe a little of Woods had rubbed off on O'Meara.

"I'm usually not a very aggressive person," O'Meara said. "I'd be aggressive as a player trying to win a golf tournament, but I'm not aggressive outwardly saying something like that. Maybe I used that as a little boost or a little bit of motivation to see what I could do."

O'Meara's prediction came true. The two birdies helped him hold off Fred Couples and Duval, beating them each by a stroke. Nobody had ever played the Masters more times before finally winning.

And only a few had been asked about not winning a major more than O'Meara.

"It was flattering that people always put me in that category," he said. "I know people who are in that category wished they weren't, but it's pretty nice that the media thought I was qualified enough."

His friendship with Woods should not be underestimated in O'Meara's rise from a player who won consistently to one now considered among the best in the world. Alicia O'Meara has said it was the key to her husband's success.

"I think it put a little fire in Mark," she said after her husband's victory at Royal Birkdale.

O'Meara and his family -- which also includes 12-year-old Michelle and 9-year-old Shaun -- provided Woods with some stability and normalcy, if you consider living in a gated community of $3 million homes normal.

"I think Tiger definitely deserves some of the credit," O'Meara said. "I think he's had an influence on my game from the standpoint that we play a lot of golf together, we compete together at home. He's definitely pushed me a little bit."

Even before he won the Masters, O'Meara was considered a corporate heavyweight when it came to endorsements and appearances. Even before he won the British Open, O'Meara was considered something of an international star.

Other players who cashed that coveted green jacket into millions have burned out. O'Meara seems confident that he won't be a casualty, given his experience in traveling around the world.

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