Out Of The Woods Young lions and Tiger and a Golden Bear--Mark O'Meara slipped past a menagerie of rivals to win the Masters

April 19, 1998

Your new Masters champion is a multimillionaire who loves cheap
motels, endorses Rogaine and suffers so badly from male-pattern
blandness that one man approached him at dinner in Augusta last
week shouting, "Mark McCumber! Mark McCumber! You're Mark
McCumber!"

"Sorry," the man was told. "I'm Mark O'Meara."

For the record, your new Masters champion isn't McCumber, who
earned just $3,870 on the PGA Tour last year, but O'Meara, who
holed a 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole on Sunday evening
to win his first major, in his 15th try at Augusta, at an
age--41--when most men are dribbling down the front of their
hospital gowns. Or so your previous Masters champion would have
you believe.

"Studies show that your physical peak is at age 28, and unless
you work out, you lose one percent of your motor skills each
year after that," Tiger Woods said earnestly on Saturday
evening. Hours later the 22-year-old Woods finished the
tournament tied for eighth place, six strokes behind O'Meara,
his close friend and neighbor in Orlando's ultraswish Isleworth
community. Woods's three-under-par 285 left him only two strokes
behind 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus (page 104) and comfortably
ahead of 62-year-old Gary Player, to say nothing of 66-year-old
Gay Brewer, whose name may sound like a niche publication but
was, in fact, near the top of the leader board for most of the
tournament's opening round.

It went that way all week for all of golf's young stars. David
Duval, 26, was watching TV in the Jones Cabin at 7 p.m. on
Sunday, awaiting a possible playoff with O'Meara and 38-year-old
Fred Couples, both of whom were also at eight under par, when
O'Meara jarred his 20-footer on 18. "Novels with strange and
goofy characters are what I like," says the bookish Duval, whose
idea of something to read (The Fountainhead) differs from that
of most pros (the sprinkler head), but the fact remains: Every
player could enjoy last week's story, an epically strange and
impossibly goofy four-day serial thriller from Augusta.

For starters, take the finish. It was as absurd and endearing a
scenario as you will find in sports, which somehow keeps
throwing these little life lessons at us: On Easter Sunday, in
his 40th consecutive Masters, in a week in which a plaque was
affixed to a drinking fountain between the 16th green and 17th
tee to commemorate his achievements and send him off into the
September of his years, six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus
birdied four of his first seven holes to move within two shots
of the lead. This left the other players on the leader board
with no galleries and a strong desire to abandon their own
matches so they could see what in god's name had gotten into
Nicklaus, who hadn't won on the regular Tour since his
preposterous Masters victory in 1986.

"You knew exactly where he was as he made his way around the
course," said Duval after Sunday's round. "We were at number 2
and heard a roar, so we knew he stuck his shot on 6. We heard
another roar, so we knew he made the putt...." So it went all
afternoon, a sonic boomlet of Jack-induced joy going up every 20
minutes or so.

When Woods--who won last year's Masters by a record 12 strokes
and was expected to do the same for years to come--was asked
last week if he could imagine playing in his 40th consecutive
Masters, he replied, "God, no. I can't even fathom, I guess,
being that old."

But for the most part, this year's principals couldn't fathom
being so young, as young as young Woods--or Duval, or Phil
Mickelson, 27, or Justin Leonard, 25. The leader entering Sunday
was Couples, a man with arthritis in his back and retirement in
his heart. "I'll still play golf," he said of his plans to hang
it up within five years. "It'll just be every Tuesday at eight
o'clock at the club." Couples enjoyed a two-stroke lead over
Paul Azinger, also 38, and Mickelson. "I wish I was Tiger's
age," Couples said with a sigh on Saturday night, "but when he's
30, I think he's going to be spent."

Would it be any wonder? After teeing off to start the defense of
his title on Thursday, Woods received a death threat via the
Internet. He was, in accordance with his wishes, informed of the
threat by a course official on the 13th tee. (It's a measure of
how routine these threats have become that Woods promptly
birdied the hole.)

Woods whiled away Saturday night shut inside his bedroom, inside
his locked rental house, itself guarded by a sheriff's deputy,
inside a gated community in Augusta. He had played erratically
but was only five strokes off the lead.

"I don't have any desire at all to change places with Tiger,"
says O'Meara, who lives three blocks from Woods and has him over
for lunch regularly. "I have seen the sacrifices he has had to
make, and...." Well, let's just say a canine unit of the Augusta
police department won't be required outside O'Meara's rental
home next April, as it was in front of Woods's this year.

Contrast his life with that of Matt Kuchar, the 19-year-old
successor to Woods as U.S. Amateur champion, a man Woods called
Kid when they played together on Thursday. Kuchar literally
never stopped smiling over four glorious days of even-par golf
at Augusta National, whose back nine looked so familiar to him.
"Man, Pop," Kuchar said to his caddie-father, Peter, as the two
strolled Amen Corner last Thursday. "How many times have we been
on the other side of the TV?"

Like the heroine in the ultimate novel of "strange and goofy
characters," Alice in Wonderland, Kuchar, a Georgia Tech
sophomore, had gone through the modern-day looking glass and
wound up inside his television set. On Thursday he made a
10-foot putt on 6, in full view of the gallery at 16, where
Nicklaus made his iconic birdie putt in 1986. "I remember Jack
Nicklaus making his putt on 16 back in '86," said Kuchar
afterward, "and he lifted his putter up in the air. And for some
reason, my putter just went up in the air."

Duval watched Nicklaus's 1986 triumph as it reran on the Golf
Channel on the Monday of Masters week. So, for that matter, did
Nicklaus, who was playing with his grandkids when he happened
upon it, little knowing that he would resurrect those images
later in the week. Of course, the best impression of Nicklaus by
a golfer other than Nicklaus last week belonged to O'Meara, who
won the Masters with his putter. In all, he took only 105 putts,
12 less than Woods did last year, when he shot a record 270 and
didn't three-putt once.

O'Meara and Woods, whose oh-so-modern friendship was brokered by
their mutual agency, IMG, play together often. Practicing at Bay
Hill in Orlando last month, Woods outdrove O'Meara by 67 yards
on one hole--they actually paced it off. "Look," said O'Meara,
"you and I can't continue to play practice rounds together.
You've got an eight-iron to the green, and I've got a
three-wood. Where's the fairness in that?"

"You've got a putter," Woods replied.

"He was right," O'Meara said after putting on the green jacket.
While Duval was three-putting 16 on Sunday for bogey, to go to
eight under, O'Meara was birdieing 15, to get to seven under.
O'Meara's partner, Couples, made an eagle at 15 and tied Duval
for the lead, and both men would par out the round.

Despite trailing both men by a stroke O'Meara strode to the 17th
tee feeling oddly at ease. "I'm going to birdie the last two
holes and win," he said to his caddie, Jerry Higginbotham, who
noted the faraway look in his loop's eyes. Higginbotham would
later say, "He was like, stoned, man."

O'Meara did make a birdie at 17--one-putting from nine feet,
left to right, downhill--to pull even with Couples and Duval.
His tee shot on 18 left him 148 uphill yards from the flag.
Higginbotham suggested a six-iron. "I'm gonna blitz a
seven-iron," said the stoned O'Meara, who put his ball on the
bottom shelf of the green, 20 feet to the right of the stick.

The gallery at 18 was too large, and O'Meara's two children were
too small to see what happened next. All that Shaun, 8, and
Michelle, 11, knew was that a very frightening sound went up
from the crowd. Then Renay Appleby, wife of Tour player Stuart
and a friend of the family's, turned to the kids and screamed,
"You won! You won! You won!"

With that putt, O'Meara happily handed his share of the disputed
title of Best Player Never to Have Won a Major to Colin
Montgomerie, who has now unified the belt, if you will. Asked
last week by the American press corps in Augusta what he would
do if he won the Masters, Montgomerie replied hilariously, "What
would I do if I won? Well, I could sit here like you guys with a
green jacket and a fancy tie and I'd wear it all day every day,
and I'd buy a place in Augusta and come here all the time...."

O'Meara's reverence in victory was genuine, and so was his glee.
When the winning putt fell, Woods went ape-spit with happiness
in Butler Cabin, one cabin from Duval, who was also watching on
TV. Scant moments later Tiger could hardly get the green jacket
on the motor-skills-impaired O'Meara, who couldn't get his right
hand into the sleeve. "I'm 41 years old," O'Meara reminded
Woods, who was holding the jacket too high. "I can't get my arm
way up there."

The green-jacket ceremony was then repeated for the ticket
holders outside Butler Cabin, on the practice green that abuts
18. As it proceeded, Higginbotham quietly presented O'Meara's
wife, Alicia, with various loosely affixed mementos from his
white jumpsuit: the MASTERS logo on one pocket and his caddie
number, 73, on the other. Michelle then ripped her father's name
off Higginbotham's back. Never in your life have you seen a
golfer on a putting green so happy to get Velcroed as Mark
O'Meara.

Only the night before, he reflected on his childhood in Mission
Viejo, Calif., and what a wonder it is that he would ever be
mistaken for a professional golfer at all--whether that golfer
be Mark O'Meara or Mark McCumber or anyone else. ("Tom Lehman,
too," O'Meara said. "I get that a lot.")

"I washed clubs at the country club as a kid," O'Meara said.
"Not because I was poor--I wasn't poor. I was just hoping to one
day play on the PGA Tour and one day win one tournament." And
winning a major? "That would fulfill a dream. No doubt about it."

Even to the runners-up this Masters was, "I don't
know--dreamlike, maybe?" So said Duval, who waited for O'Meara's
putt to fall, and knowing that it would. "Watching the
tournament on television, I had seen too many funny things
happen" he said, thinking of Nicklaus in 1986 and Norman in '96.

"Playing here is something I wish everyone could experience,"
said Duval, whose only regret, as he watched O'Meara's ball fall
into the cup, was that "I didn't get to go back out there."

He didn't get to go through the looking glass, to the other side
of the TV, as so many other players already had.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND BIRDIE'S EYE VIEW Masters champion Mark O'Meara raises his arms in triumph after sinking the 20-foot birdie putt that brought him his first major title after 17 years on the Tour (page 32). [Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK MARK X'S THE SPOT O'Meara's first Masters win in 15 tries removed the mantle of greatest golfer never to win a major from his shoulders. [Mark O'Meara golfing] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO BUNKER MENTALITY Despite hitting two traps on 18 on Sunday, Couples (above) saved par. But nothing could save him or Woods (left) from falling to O'Meara's deft putting. [Fred Couples golfing out of bunker] COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN [See caption above--Tiger Woods golfing out of bunker] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK AGE MUST BE SERVED Doing his best impression of the Ghost of Masters Past, Nicklaus was in contention most of Sunday. [Jack Nicklaus]

On Sunday a sonic boomlet of Jack-induced joy went out every 20
minutes or so.

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)