KING OF THE B'S MARK O'MEARA HAS BEEN A HIT ON TOUR, BUT A FLOP IN THE MAJORS

February 24, 1997

Why is it that Mark O'Meara wins twice this year and nobody gets
excited? Or that he wins six times on Tour in the last 23
months, more than anyone else, and gets zero consideration as
the game's best player? Everyone was pumped when Phil Mickelson
won a couple of times early last season, and everyone's excited
again in 1997 about one of the guys O'Meara beat, Tiger Woods.
The consensus on Mark O'Meara? Wake us when he's leading on
Sunday at Augusta.

That's the problem. Not only has O'Meara never won a major, he
has seldom come close. Unlike Mickelson and Woods, he is not
viewed as a great player by most fans. Although O'Meara has 14
victories on Tour--more than any current player who hasn't won a
Grand Slam event and more than most who have--he's not even
considered to be the best player never to have won a major.
O'Meara would probably be ranked behind Mickelson, Davis Love
III, Colin Montgomerie and Woods, the 21-year-old whom O'Meara
calls "my little friend."

For years O'Meara has been the steady swinging, clear-thinking
guy who wins the pro-ams, the Greensboros, the Texas Opens, the
Milwaukees. He might own Pebble Beach during the AT&T, which he
has won five times, but he missed the cut when the U.S. Open was
held there in '92. In fact, O'Meara has missed the cut in 17 of
the 52 majors he has entered, has only seven top-10 finishes and
has never been better than third. Of the 10 nonmajor winners who
have as many or more wins as O'Meara, from Harry Cooper with 31
to Bruce Crampton and Joe Turnesa with 14, all but two at least
came in second in a major. Johnny Miller called Calvin Peete,
who won 12 events on Tour but never seriously contended in a
major, the King of the B's. O'Meara could be similarly branded.

More than anything, O'Meara has been held back by a game that's
built on a small scale. At the Masters, where he has
consistently finished in the top third but only once in the top
10, his draw and putting stroke are pluses. His lack of length
off the tee and relatively low, skidding approach shots are
minuses. At the U.S. Open, where O'Meara missed seven of eight
cuts from 1987 through '94, his hot, running drives are hard to
keep in the narrow fairways, and the abnormally long par-4s
favored by the USGA put tremendous pressure on his long irons.
The same holds for the PGA, in which he missed six of eight cuts
from 1986 to '93. A good wind player, O'Meara has had his
greatest success in the British Open (third-place finishes in
1985 and '91) because his lack of length and strength doesn't
matter in the thin rough.

O'Meara doesn't seem overly concerned about his failures in the
majors. He likes to joke that if Jack Nicklaus claims 20 majors
rather than 18, then his own victory in the 1979 U.S. Amateur
gives him one. While some headliners make a fuss about playing
for history, he unabashedly talks about playing for money. While
Nick Faldo tearfully hugs his beloved "little cups," a
dispassionate O'Meara has often worn his Toyota visor when
collecting the winner's check at tournaments sponsored by Buick,
Chrysler, Honda, Mercedes or Oldsmobile. He has the temerity to
suggest that the Ryder Cup isn't the ultimate competitive
experience--or even much fun--and says that the players in the
Presidents Cup should be paid.

But before anyone calls O'Meara a tin golfer with no heart,
remember that he was an unreimbursed 5-0 last year in the
Presidents Cup. A review of his victories since 1984 also
reveals him to be a ruthless closer who can handle the heat, and
I think he has been such a consistent winner precisely because
he hasn't won a major. More celebrated contemporaries like Sandy
Lyle, Nick Price, Payne Stewart and Curtis Strange each won two
majors and lost their edge, while O'Meara has been able to stay
hungry despite a steady diet of smaller victories. Yet at 40 he
knows it's time to sate what appetite he has left on haute
cuisine. "I think I'm a good player, but when you start tossing
the word great around, it comes down to the majors," he says.
"That produces added pressure and has made me try harder. But
when I do that, I tend to do worse."

Last year, however, O'Meara produced his best cumulative
performance in the Grand Slam events--with finishes ranging
between 16th and 32nd--since 1985. "I'm getting closer," he
says. "I've found out that staying relaxed makes me mentally
tougher. So when the opportunity to win presents itself, I allow
myself to seize it. There's no reason why I can't do that in a
major."

To fill that void, everything will have to break right. Unlike
the little friend he outlasted at Pebble Beach, O'Meara has
little margin for error in his game. But if he finds a way at
Augusta or Congressional or Troon or Winged Foot, we'll get
excited.

A lot of us will even toss around the word great.

COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN The line on O'Meara: His game's built on a small scale. [Mark O'Meara on putting green]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)