Close To The Mark Bet on Mark O'Meara to make the most of his opportunity at Sahalee

August 09, 1998

At next week's PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club in
Redmond, Wash., Mark O'Meara has a chance to join Ben Hogan as
the only man to win three pro majors in a year. That's a
startling possibility, when you think about it. Besides Hogan,
who hit the trifecta in 1953 after having won a pair of majors
in '51, only seven other players have been in a similar position
since the first Masters, in 1934. The roll call: Craig Wood
('41), Arnold Palmer ('60 and '62), Jack Nicklaus ('66 and '72),
Lee Trevino ('71), Gary Player ('74), Tom Watson ('77 and '82)
and Nick Faldo ('90). Here's something even more outrageous:
Don't be surprised if O'Meara wins number three. He has made a
career out of converting rare opportunities.

In any conversation about the majors, Hogan and O'Meara would
juxtapose like Ruth and Maris. The heavy presence of Hogan
always loomed over the Grand Slam events, while until this year,
the majors were an o'mission on O'Meara's record. Before April's
Masters he had missed the cut in 18 of his 57 starts in majors
and had only seven top 10 finishes. With his low ballflight and
right-to-left game, O'Meara looked overmatched in the big
championships, so much so that when he opened the 1997 season
with the 13th and 14th wins of his 17-year career on Tour, I
wrote in this space that no one should get too excited, and I
labeled O'Meara the King of the B's.

I should've known better. O'Meara has proved to be the master of
the eloquent rebuttal. First, he stole the show at Augusta with
a surgical strike of three birdies in the final four holes, the
last coming on a 20-foot putt that had opportunity written all
over it. Then, at Royal Birkdale, O'Meara birdied four of the
final eight holes of regulation to take the claret jug. In an
instant he went from Marky Mark--Sweden's Jarmo Sandelin had
accused O'Meara of improperly marking his ball at last year's
Lancome Trophy--to Major Mark, at 41 the oldest player to win
two Grand Slam events in a year.

This pattern of surprise and conquer began when O'Meara upset a
highly touted John Cook in the final of the U.S. Amateur in
1979. When O'Meara and, by coincidence, Fred Couples made their
pro debuts the following year in the Queen Mary Open, a regional
event in Long Beach, Calif., no one noticed O'Meara. "With
Freddie you could at least see something there," remembers Doug
Ives, the tournament director. "With Mark, you couldn't see it
at all."

But O'Meara could. He went on to earn his Tour card that fall and
was the '81 rookie of the year. That didn't stop him, though,
from overhauling his funky inside-and-over-the-top swing, turning
it into a flatter move modeled after that of, yes, Hogan. In 1984
O'Meara won his first event, the Greater Milwaukee Open, and
finished second on the money list.

From that point on, he would have you believe, everything has
been frosting. O'Meara likes posing as the chubby guy who has
done more than anyone thought possible. It's a shrewd guise that
lowers expectations, and pressure, but behind that facade lurks
a cocky defiance that surfaces at the hint of condescension.
Last year at Pebble Beach, when O'Meara was asked what it was
like to play with Tiger Woods, he replied, "Hey, I've won 12
times on the PGA Tour. Ask him what it's like to play with me."
Then O'Meara went out and won the tournament (for the fifth
time), blunting a furious charge by Woods with a back-atcha
chip-in birdie. In the same way that O'Meara's second-story job
at the Masters was a reaction to being cuffed around by the
media for not winning a major, his British Open victory was the
best response to Sandelin's aspersions.

O'Meara admits that he has been rejuvenated by his close
relationship with Woods, drafting off the rush of the younger
player's energy and ambition. If Tiger is destiny's child, he
may look back on his Orlando neighbor as his best teacher.
Woods's task is to get the most out of his talent. No one has
done that better than O'Meara.

Bottom line: O'Meara's a special player who shouldn't be sold
short. While he'll never get more than B's for his physical
skills--an assessment he acknowledges when he calls himself "a
nice player, not a great one"--the internal O'Meara gets
straight A's. His round edges might suggest a roll of Charmin,
but inside he's steel. Until further notice, Mark O'Meara is
golf's best finisher.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN [Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods]

Woods's task is to get the most out of his talent. No one has
done that better than O'Meara.

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)