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Double Major In a wildly entertaining British Open that saw three breathtaking 72nd-hole finishes and a playoff, unflappable Mark O'Meara won his second major in three months

July 27, 1998
July 27, 1998

Table of Contents
July 27, 1998

Rattlers [bonus Piece]

Double Major In a wildly entertaining British Open that saw three breathtaking 72nd-hole finishes and a playoff, unflappable Mark O'Meara won his second major in three months

Alcohol is not truth serum, but sometimes the wetted tongue
speaks with refreshing candor. On Sunday, in the aftermath of
Mark O'Meara's victory in the British Open, a man in a dark
blazer came up behind Brian Watts, who an hour before had lost
to O'Meara in a four-hole playoff and was now sitting on a couch
in the almost-deserted hospitality tent. The man handed Watts a
champagne glass and filled it halfway. Watts, a Diet Coke man,
gave the glass a dubious look. But he took a sip--celebrating,
no doubt, his imminent escape from golf exile.

This is an article from the July 27, 1998 issue

Outside, on a bench by the clubhouse doors, caddie Jerry
Higginbotham declined a glass of bubbly offered by a passing
waiter. Higginbotham already had a glass of lager in his left
hand and another tucked under the bench. In an exultant mood, he
raised his glass and toasted himself. "I might have saved Mark
O'Meara the British Open!" he crowed.

The waiter carrying the tray of champagne flutes was already out
of earshot. He had crossed the driveway and was passing out
drinks to a thirsty and clamoring crowd. Why all the champagne?
Because this was a major championship that had given many
participants--and spectators--reason to celebrate. Within an
hour on Sunday, the Royal Birkdale Golf Club offered up no fewer
than three 72nd-hole finishes as compelling as any in British
Open history. Tiger Woods, a stroke off the lead, dropped a
30-foot birdie putt and arm-pumped his way across the 18th
green. Seventeen-year-old Brit Justin Rose holed out a 45-yard
pitch for birdie and tied for fourth, the best finish by an
amateur since Frank Stranahan's second-place finish at
Carnoustie in 1953. And Watts forced the playoff with one of the
best long bunker shots ever made under pressure.

There were other developments last weekend that also merited a
tip of the glass.

--An ultraexclusive gated community in Florida found itself
three fourths of the way to the Grand Slam. (O'Meara, who also
won the Masters in April, and U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen are
both residents of Isleworth in Orlando.)

--For the second time this summer, the winner of a major had a
lost ball reappear as he was walking back to hit another. (A
spectator stumbled upon O'Meara's ball in the rough during the
third round, saving him at least two strokes; Janzen hit a ball
into a tree at San Francisco's Olympic Club in June but lucked
out minutes later when it fell back to earth.)

--For the second time this summer, a four-round total of even
par took the prize at a major. (At the Olympic Club tight
fairways and fast greens humbled the field; at Royal Birkdale,
deep rough and wind did.)

Ah, yes, the conditions. The weather in the British Isles has
been on the wet and windy side this year. England's northwest
shore is so soggy that hedgerows are spilling onto pavements,
and articles left outdoors overnight turn into Chia pets. The
days leading up to the Open were notable for squalls that
whistled through the flags at Royal Birkdale. The rough was so
thick that Tom Lehman lost six balls in eight holes during a
Monday practice round and so tall that you could almost hide a
Texan in it--specifically the defending champion from Dallas,
Justin Leonard, who finished 17 over par for the tournament.

Royal Birkdale is something like a maze in a British garden. Its
twisting fairways are bordered by high, wild dunes, giving
players the sense that they are making their way through an
artfully contrived puzzle. Which, of course, they are. In last
week's rain and wind, this par-70 links played more like a
par-77 lynx, clawing players badly. The scores on Saturday, when
the wind never dipped below 25 mph, were the worst: Janzen shot
80, Leonard 82, Phil Mickelson 85. Nick Price, a stroke off the
lead after two rounds, signed for an 82 and retired to the
clubhouse looking pale and worn.

Only on the opening day could the weather be called ideal, and
the field celebrated with 27 subpar rounds, led by Woods and
John Huston, who each shot 65. But the second round went to
Royal Birkdale as morning rains soaked the course and afternoon
winds raked it. Woods got around in 73 and O'Meara shot a
splendid 68, but the day belonged to two golfers who had never
been on a leader board at a major. The first was Rose, the
rosy-cheeked boy from Hook, a town 40 miles southwest of London,
who ditched school 18 months ago to play full-time amateur golf.
He shot a 66 in Friday's gale, tying Stranahan (1950) and Woods
(1996) for the lowest British Open round by an amateur. "My 66
was nowhere near as good," said Woods, "because mine was in calm
weather."

The other interloper was Watts, a 32-year-old American who
spends most of the year in Japanese hotel rooms, watching
television and talking long distance to his wife, Debbye, who is
raising their one-year-old son in Oklahoma City. This curious
and unsatisfactory arrangement owes to Watts's success on the
Japanese tour (he has won 11 tournaments and more than $4
million in five-plus years) and to his equally curious and
unsatisfactory attempts to make it on the PGA Tour. (He finished
184th on the money list in 1991, his only year on that circuit.)
Watts has been portrayed in the media (unfairly, according to
his friends and family) as an ugly American who accumulates bags
of yen while shunning Japanese food and culture. Watts says he
eats whatever his hosts serve him--"Except the raw fish. It's
just a mental block," he says--and even loads up the rice cooker
whenever he's in Oklahoma City.

But Watts has never denied that he would rather be playing in
the U.S. Some suspect it was fish-out-of-water syndrome that
caused him to snap in May at the Fuji Sankei Classic, where he
drew a $1,500 fine and a possible suspension after intentionally
hitting two balls into the ocean and putting with his pitching
wedge for four holes to ensure that he missed the cut.
(According to witnesses Watts was expressing his frustration
with the course's grainy greens.) Asked about the incident,
after he had shot 68-69 to take the second-round lead at Royal
Birkdale, Watts politely slammed the lid on the cooker. "I made
a mistake," he said, "and that's about it."

With his welcome perhaps wearing out in Japan, Watts had to feel
more pressure than the weekend's other contenders. Victory in
the British Open carries a five-year exemption for the PGA Tour,
and all prize money counts toward the Tour's money list. In
effect Watts came to Royal Birkdale as a hostage attempting to
raise his own ransom.

O'Meara, on the other hand, seemed as relaxed as a pensioner at
tea. Before he won the Masters, he was just one of the
test-pattern personalities who toil quietly on Tour and end up
rich (14 tournament wins and $8.8 million in prize money over 17
years, in O'Meara's case). He didn't register with golf fans
until he began exerting an avuncular influence on another of his
Isleworth neighbors, Woods. The two holidayed together in
Ireland the week before the Open, playing golf and fishing, and
it was easy to think of the 41-year-old O'Meara just as Tiger's
older, unthreatening friend.

But sometimes laid-back can be mistaken for lying down, which
O'Meara came dangerously close to doing in the third round. On
Saturday, on the brutally long par-4 6th, his second shot found
what the British call "the beige rough." Despite being just off
the lead, O'Meara made only a cursory attempt to find his errant
shot. He was heading back up the fairway for a drop--and a
two-stroke penalty--when a spectator found the ball (stepped on
it, actually) and picked it up. Higginbotham yelled frantically
for O'Meara to return to the rough (thus his claim to have saved
the Open for his boss). After O'Meara went back, he mostly
smiled and shrugged while men in blazers conferred with each
other. "I'm going to make a big number anyway," O'Meara told one
official. "I'll do whatever you want."

In the end he got a huge break. Since the spectator, an "outside
agency" under the rules, had picked up the ball, O'Meara was
given a free drop near the point where his ball had been found.
When two efforts to drop it on the steep slope did not produce a
legal lie, he was told that he could place his ball in the
rough. From that cushy lie, O'Meara pitched onto the green and
two-putted for a five.

At the time O'Meara's hike through the hay suggested that he
didn't think he could beat the elements. In retrospect it showed
that he had the right temperament for Royal Birkdale--a wry
detachment that did not so much overcome setbacks as ignore
them. On Sunday, in a wind that made the pin flags merely flap
instead of stiffen, O'Meara rode like a leaf on the tide of
dramatic surges. Ahead of him Woods, who at 22 was scrapping for
his second major championship, chipped in for birdie on 17 and
thrilled the grandstands on 18 with the long putt that
momentarily tied him for the lead. Rose then goosed the crowd
with his pitch-in from the tall grass, his last shot as an
amateur. (Rose's total of 282 tied him for fourth with Jim
Furyk, Jesper Parnevik and Raymond Russell, and led him to
announce that he was turning pro.)

In the end, though, it was O'Meara and Watts--the man without a
care versus the man without a country. Both birdied the 17th and
parred the 18th, although Watts hit the shot we'll remember, a
long greenside bunker blast from an awkward lie that came out
low and rolled to tap-in range. The two men then were taken to
the 15th tee to start the four-hole, stroke-play playoff unique
to the Open. Watts blinked first, missing a short birdie putt on
15. He squandered another stroke when he drove into a wall of
grass on 17. In the 18th fairway, with sunlight squeezing
through a crack in the clouds, O'Meara turned to Higginbotham
and said, "I have never been this calm. I can't believe how calm
I am." He then smacked a four-iron to the back edge of the
green. Two putts later, he was the oldest player in modern times
to win two majors in the same year.

Later in the hospitality tent, Watts dealt with his defeat
calmly, comforted by the news that his $329,000 second-place
check guaranteed him a place on the PGA Tour through 1999. But
he wouldn't actually say that he was coming home. Not yet. "I've
got obligations in Japan," he said, mindful of the sponsors who
have treated him well there. "It's not a decision to make 15
minutes after I've lost in a playoff."

Outside, a throng of well-wishers surrounded O'Meara in the
driveway next to the clubhouse while his wife, Alicia, watched
happily and sipped champagne. "Mark didn't have anything to
prove," she said. "This is just something nice that happened to
us." Higginbotham, enjoying the moment--and his lager--said,
"He's got to get his due now. If he never makes another penny in
golf, Mark O'Meara is in the history books."

The funny thing was, the one guy without a glass in his hand was
the winner. He just stood there with a contented smile on his
face, clutching an old claret jug.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS COLE/TGPL COVER The Unlikely CHAMPION MARK O'MEARA triumphs in a brutal BRITISH OPEN to win his second major of the yearCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK MAKING HIS MARK O'Meara, 41, became the oldest golfer to win two majors in the same year. [Mark O'Meara chipping in front of gallery]COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN SAVING GRACE O'Meara (left) escaped disaster on Saturday after a fan picked up his seemingly lost ball; Watts dug his way out of a greenside bunker to force the playoff. [Mark O'Meara golfing out of rough in front of gallery]COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN MUNDAY/ALLSPORT [See caption above--Brian Watts golfing out of bunker]COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN WEED WHACKER Woods started strong and finished strong, but couldn't overcome his windblown 77 in the third round. [Tiger Woods golfing out of rough in front of gallery]COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN MAJOR MINOR Local favorite Rose, 17, celebrated holing out from 45 yards on the 72nd hole, a shot that helped him tie for fourth. [Justin Rose]
In the end, it was the man without a care against the man without
a country.