Search

FIRST OFF THE MARK MARK O'MEARA HOPES THAT HIS SEASON-OPENING WIN WILL LEAD TO SOMETHING BIG

Jan. 15, 1996
Jan. 15, 1996

Table of Contents
Jan. 15, 1996

FIRST OFF THE MARK MARK O'MEARA HOPES THAT HIS SEASON-OPENING WIN WILL LEAD TO SOMETHING BIG

As the first event on the 1996 PGA Tour, last week's $1 million
Mercedes Championships did a smashing job of fulfilling its
mission as Update Central. All around the La Costa Resort and
Spa the feelings of optimism and goodwill were so pervasive that
nobody seemed to hold it against the winner, Mark O'Meara, that
he wore a Toyota visor all week. Heck, that sort of ambush
marketing happens all the time out there in the corporate world,
and, besides, there were more important things to gossip about.
Such as who came to La Costa with new equipment contracts, new
attitudes and, most important, new playing itineraries. So much
was new, in fact, that Lee Janzen, who was breaking in his
fourth set of clubs since his victory in the 1993 U.S. Open,
felt compelled to announce that "I've got the same sons, the
same wife and the same caddie."

This is an article from the Jan. 15, 1996 issue Original Layout

Until 1994, when Mercedes took over the tournament, the event
was known as the Tournament of Champions, which was a perfectly
good and fitting name for an exclusive field that's limited to
the previous year's Tour winners and the British Open
titleholder. Of the 32 players eligible for last week's
gathering, only Ernie Els, who was resting in South Africa, and
Peter Jacobsen, who's bothered by an aching back, failed to tee
it up. So no wonder O'Meara, who was to celebrate his 39th
birthday six days after the final round, seemed unusually
exuberant about his three-shot victory over Scott Hoch and the
formidable Nick Faldo.

"It's nice to get off to a good jump start," said O'Meara, whose
11 career victories include five in California, where he grew
up, but no majors. "Who knows? Maybe this will be a big year for
Mark O'Meara. Maybe this will be the year I win a major
championship."

A win at La Costa makes a guy think like that, especially now
that you can no longer come to the Tour's first event expecting
to find a lot of out-of-shape guys who have been spending more
time with their fishing rods than with their Callaways and
Pings. It used to be that the players viewed a win at the Spa as
nice, even rejuvenating--a way to get a leg up on the year. But a
dull performance wasn't something to start windmilling putters
over because, well, only guys like Palmer and Nicklaus could
reasonably be expected to have their A games ready from the
get-go. Heck, the tournament was known among the players as the
Rust-Oleum Chip-Off Classic. But that's not the way it is
anymore. Said O'Meara, "There's not as much of a rust factor.
Guys play a lot more these days. When they get here, they're
rarin' to go."

Last week nobody was more rarin' than O'Meara, who scorched the
La Costa layout for rounds of 68-69-66-68, putting him 17 under
for the week. He was in midseason form, mainly because he's one
of those players who find it hard to sit out November and
December when there's so much easy loot available in off-season
events around the world. So O'Meara didn't take a break until
after the first week of December, when he returned from Buenos
Aires and an unsuccessful defense of his Argentine Open title.
Although he took the rest of the month off and spent two weeks
skiing in Utah, the Tour was never far from his mind.

"I can't say I didn't touch a club for two weeks," O'Meara said.
"I took a seven-iron with me and swung it a few times in the
room."

Maybe Greg Norman should have tried that. For whatever reason,
something was missing from his normally spectacular game until
Sunday, when he fired a 29 on the front side and had seven
straight birdies--one off the Tour record--in a round of 67. On
Thursday afternoon Norman began 1996 with the first of three
one-over 73s, and in the evening wrapped up 1995 by accepting
the Player of the Year trophy at a banquet in the La Costa
clubhouse. The award will get a special spot in Norman's
overstocked trophy case because it came from his peers, some of
whom have made it clear over the years that they think Norman
gets far more publicity and adoration than his record merits.

Almost 41, Norman has so many irons in the fire (if not on fire,
at least for the moment) that it must be wondered if he's
spreading himself too thin, the way Palmer and Nicklaus did at
the peak of their careers. When asked about it, Norman gave a
cryptic answer. "I've set up a game plan through the year 2000,"
he said. "I'm focused very heavily on the next four years. If I
satisfy my goals, I might take a hard look at whether I want to
stop."

Disappointing as Norman's overall play was, it was by no means
the worst of the tournament. John Daly, who was suffering from
back problems and the flu, stumbled home dead last in the first
round and, as they say in horse racing, failed to improve his
position. The only record he threatened was the unofficial one
for fast play. On Friday, Daly and playing partner Hal Sutton,
the first twosome off the tee, were clocked in less than three
hours.

That left plenty of time for the new postmatch autograph
session. In response to players' complaints about being stalked
everywhere by professional autograph collectors, the Tour has
adopted a policy that calls for players to be available for
signing only in designated, roped-off areas and only upon the
completion of their rounds. At La Costa the policy passed its
first test without incident, though it should be noted that the
galleries were smaller and more polite than those at the typical
Tour stop, that Craig Stadler was not in the small field and
that nobody in the well-heeled crowd was gauche enough to bring
up the Ryder Cup to Janzen or ask Faldo about his marital status.

Many of the players were too busy praising their new equipment
to worry about anything else. Corey Pavin, who's using a new
ball (the Titleist HP2 Tour), shot a 67 to take the first-round
lead. He was replaced through two rounds by Janzen, who used all
his new stuff--Taylor Made clubs, Precept balls, Fila apparel--to
fashion a second-round 65 that he liked better than the
course-record 63 he shot in last year's second round. "I was
striking the ball better," said Janzen, in what sounded
suspiciously like a commercial, "and I'm in control of my game."
But then he dropped back into the pack on Saturday (must be the
shoes, right?) as O'Meara charged into the lead, which he nursed
through Sunday's final round. And guess who O'Meara thanked
after the win? Not his wife or his caddie, but his equipment. "A
lot of it was due to the Taylor Made equipment I've been using,"
he said, "and a little bit that I played good too."

He also played at a reasonable pace that fell somewhere between
that of Daly and Faldo, O'Meara's Sunday playing partner. On the
13th hole, tournament officials informed O'Meara that his group
was "under the clock," meaning that they were in danger of being
penalized for slow play. "It wasn't me," said O'Meara, "and Nick
and I were playing together. He told me that he was walking fast
between shots, and what I thought was, Well, all I know is we're
behind and it takes you forever when you get over the ball. But
I can't tell Nick Faldo, 'Hey, hey, hey, speed up--you're taking
too much time to pull the trigger.' When he missed the green
with his approach on 16, he must have walked back and forth
forever."

At the award ceremony O'Meara had the good sense to keep his
mouth shut (and his Toyota visor off) when he accepted the keys
to a new Mercedes. Except for Faldo, everybody in the field wore
a visor that promoted something or other. "I probably should
have worn a Lexus visor," O'Meara said, "because that's the car
that Toyota makes that's more on the same level with a Mercedes."

So what's new about O'Meara in 1996? Well, how about that load
of confidence that he carted away from La Costa? Somebody should
point out to him, if he doesn't already know it, that last year
Steve Elkington became the first opening-event winner to also
win a major since Tom Watson followed his Tournament of
Champions win in 1980 with the third of his five British Open
titles. Interestingly, Elkington's victory in the PGA
Championship at Riviera came at least partly because O'Meara
suffered a meltdown after a record-tying 131 in the opening
rounds had given him a share of the lead with Els. That failure
still eats at O'Meara.

"Usually I don't back off after I get the lead," he said. "All I
need is to have good mental vibes and the confidence to drive
the ball well. I've been close to winning majors in the past. I
can remember those events and what it felt like to lose. There's
no reason why I shouldn't be able to win a major. Lately I've
been taking my game in the right direction--a little more
upscale."

You win the Mercedes at La Costa, and you're definitely in
upscale territory. Now we'll have to see if O'Meara can use the
Mercedes (his new championship, not his new car) as the vehicle
to carry him to the most exclusive neighborhood in golf.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [Mark O'Meara]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Janzen had his game in high gear during a tournament-low 65 but spun his wheels on the weekend. [Lee Janzen]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESSAfter a slow start, Daly made sure his last-place finish came in near-record time. [John Daly]

This is an article from
the Jan. 15, 1996 issue