Making Waves By winning big, Mark O'Meara finally blew his cover as just another run-of-the-mill pro

December 07, 1998

The 1998 season was full of surprises. Who would have predicted
that a couple of minors, Matt Kuchar and Justin Rose, would
become the talk of the majors, or that one of the PGA Tour's
most respected couples, Tom and Linda Watson, would become the
talk of the locker room? The biggest surprise of all, though,
was the one pulled off by Mark O'Meara, who transformed himself
from a nice player (his words) into a force.

A nice player is one who has won as often as O'Meara (16 times
on Tour) over a long career (he was rookie of the year in 1981).
A force is a player the rest of the field watches with its
collective third eye every time he tees it up. A force doesn't
simply survive, winning majors that others lose by making
mistakes; he closes the deal by executing winning shots. This
year O'Meara became the sport's Mr. Clutch, everyone's choice to
make the proverbial six-foot putt for your life. Even his peers,
who have long held his game in high regard, wonder exactly how
the graying O'Meara shifted into this extra gear. If anything,
he had always appeared to be one of those fortunate players who
optimized his abilities--an overachiever. But by the end of the
year, the player who had seemingly lacked the necessary weaponry
to contend in majors had won the Masters and the British Open,
just missed winning the PGA and was named the player of the year
by the PGA of America and the Tour. The question remains: How
did he do it?

It didn't happen all at once, nor did it happen for only one
reason, although a not-bad shorthand answer is Tiger Woods. Like
most breakout seasons 20 years in the making, O'Meara's '98
campaign was the result of a gradual accumulation of skill and
wisdom that subtly and suddenly merged.

In retrospect O'Meara's journey began when he met golf's
ultimate searcher, Ben Hogan. Hogan, who had a soft spot for
dogs and promising young golfers, was intrigued with O'Meara
after learning that he had played Hogan clubs while winning the
1979 U.S. Amateur. The next year O'Meara signed his first
endorsement deal in Hogan's Fort Worth office. "After Mr. Hogan
asked me about myself, I got the courage to ask him about his
days starting out," O'Meara says. "He said, 'Mark, I taught
myself piece by piece. I'd go to bed and think about some part
of my swing and get up in the middle of the night to check it in
the mirror. The next day, I'd try it on the practice tee. If it
worked, I'd keep it. If it didn't, I'd get rid of it. It took me
awhile, but I got hold of what was right for me.' I've never
forgotten that conversation. Ever since, I've tried to keep
gnawing away, one piece at a time."

Same as Hogan in his epic 1953 season, when he won three majors,
O'Meara reached his pinnacle when he was 41. O'Meara's
performance may not have inspired a ticker-tape parade up
Broadway, as did Hogan's, but it validated the contention of his
longtime teacher, Hank Haney, that "no one has kept improving
longer than Mark."

Although he won't admit it--"be humble, be thankful and don't
get caught up in expectations" is the mantra he tries to live
by--O'Meara has always aspired to be a great player. "I knew he
was capable of it," says his wife of 18 years, Alicia, who rode
shotgun in a VW Rabbit filled to the brim with clothes and clubs
when her husband began his pro career in 1980. "Deep down I
think Mark did, too. But he wouldn't even tell me. In golf, some
things you don't talk about."

O'Meara is tough to crack. He fools a lot of people because he
seems so comfortable, so accessible and, to use his own
description, so normal. He signs every autograph, makes a point
of saying thank you to tournament volunteers and sponsors, and
never blows up on the course. O'Meara's affable manner developed
in part because he was forced to make new friends every time his
father, Bob, a furniture salesman, moved the family, which
happened seven times before O'Meara was a teenager.

Despite being a solid six feet and 180 pounds, O'Meara looks
cherubic, and the word round best describes much about him, from
his shoulders, slight paunch and moon-shaped face, to the
initial of his last name and the way his expansive but safe
answers to questions can make an interviewer feel as if he's
just gone 0-fer. O'Meara even made sure that the interior walls
of his custom-built, $3 million house in the exclusive Isleworth
compound in Orlando have rounded corners. "That's Mark," says
Alicia. "No hard edges."

O'Meara might look huggable, but it's a cover-up. Inside he's a
churning ball of energy. The fact is that he's all about edge.
For example, take the first thing he likes to tell a questioner:
"I never expected to be this good." That's partly true, for
O'Meara's modest golfing origins in the cart barn at Mission
Viejo, Calif., put him far behind other 14-year-olds. But the
statement is also an obfuscation, a manufactured inferiority
complex, because O'Meara loves to lowball. By pretending that
everything since his first Tour victory in 1984 has been gravy,
he avoids the expectations that have weighed so heavily on guys
like Nicklaus, Norman and Woods. That has allowed O'Meara the
kind of psychological free run that he used to his advantage in
April at Augusta, where the focus was on Fred Couples until
O'Meara took the lead for the first time with a 20-foot birdie
putt on the 72nd hole. Lowball was also his instinctive approach
to his match against a highly favored John Cook in the final of
the '79 Amateur, which O'Meara won 8 and 7, and it's a tactic he
has used to stake out the nothing-to-lose territory when playing
against Woods, whom he has gotten the best of in practice and in
tournaments. O'Meara probably learned the art of the underdog
from the master, Lee Trevino, who is godfather to O'Meara's
nine-year-old son, Shaun. The little old ladies who think Mark
O'Meara is such a nice young man eat up the act. The pros who
play against him roll their eyes at the mention of the humble
cart boy from Mission Viejo.

O'Meara reveals himself in other ways, too. Although it has
never been part of his image, his work ethic is as intense as
that of Nick Faldo, who has gotten a lot of mileage out of his
practice habits. In the early '80s, when O'Meara was altering
his swing from a self-taught, upright slash to a more rounded,
flatter action, he beat as many balls as anyone on Tour, often
at Pinehurst's Maniac Hill practice range, where he first worked
with Haney. "In my opinion, no top player has ever successfully
made as dramatic a swing change," says Haney. Adds Alicia, "I
tell our kids [the O'Mearas also have a daughter, Michelle, 11,
as well as Shaun] that if they work as hard as their father, I
will never worry about them."

Off the course, O'Meara battles against life's getting him one
down. He is frugal and stays at budget motels, eats breakfast at
McDonald's and flies commercial. He's compulsively neat about his
clothes, his house and particularly his cars. (O'Meara set up an
elaborate washing station in his garage, complete with drainage
grate, special hose nozzles and cupboards full of clean towels.)
When O'Meara takes Michelle and Shaun to the nearby Epcot Center,
he studies "how those Disney gardeners make their plants look so
good. I love that precision."

O'Meara does not waste opportunities. He makes a point of
engaging his pro-am partners--particularly business
executives--in conversations designed to broaden his horizons,
and the pleasant chemistry he creates has no doubt played a role
in his winning six Tour events (five at Pebble Beach) in which
pros play alongside amateurs for at least 54 holes. O'Meara's
ability to ingratiate himself causes cynics to call him an
operator. His rap is easy to parody, and his close relationship
with Woods has raised suspicions of ulterior motives. (Some say
O'Meara was invited to play in the Skins Game for the first
time, in 1997, only because he is a Tiger Buddy.) Even Alicia
says she regarded O'Meara suspiciously when they first met, in
1978, when he was a junior at Long Beach State and she was a
senior at Dana Hills High. "He was just so nice," she says.
"Almost too nice. I was thinking, This guy is kind of slick." On
the other hand, there has been nothing oily about O'Meara's
generous support of his former caddie, Donny Wanstall, who
contracted multiple sclerosis in 1994. "Success has never
changed Mark," says Wanstall, who works for a golf-cart company
in Jacksonville. "He has always been a good man."

When it comes to business, O'Meara can be tough and demanding. A
few years ago he had Hughes Norton replaced as his agent at
International Management Group because he felt Norton had
pursued a contract with Rogaine too aggressively. The stuff had
worked on O'Meara's balding pate, but the narcissistic
implications made him uncomfortable. "I mean, who am I trying to
kid?" says O'Meara, who no longer uses the solution. "That
wasn't me." When Woods was questioning his relationship with
Norton earlier this year, he asked O'Meara for advice. Soon
after, Woods also dismissed Norton, who then became angry at
O'Meara. "All I told Tiger was the truth about my own
experience," says O'Meara. "I didn't submarine Hughes. What
happened to Hughes, he did to himself." In recent weeks O'Meara
threatened to leave IMG entirely unless the agency sweetened his
deal. Although neither side is talking, O'Meara is staying, with
a smile on his face.

The third of five children, O'Meara is a middle child who
developed independence and common sense early on. "Mark always
had a handle on things," says 69-year-old Bob O'Meara. He and
Mark's mother, Nelda, live a few blocks from their son at
Isleworth. A Depression-era baby from New York City, Bob still
maintains an office and works five days most weeks as a
furniture wholesaler. He has never tired of the art of the
close. "We always lived in nice houses, always a little bit
above our means," says Mark. "My dad forced himself to perform.
The fear of failure was always in the air in our family, I
believe in a good way. I've never lost that feeling." Says Bob
O'Meara, "I believe in always reaching. Mark has that in his
blood, too."

O'Meara reached out to golf. "I was always the new kid in
school," he says, "so basically golf became my companion." He
demonstrated an early knack and was soon winning junior
tournaments, mostly with a good short game and excellent course
management. He was no world-beater in his first two years at
Long Beach State, but his performance improved immediately after
he met Alicia. "I eagled the first hole she ever watched me
play," O'Meara says. "I knew I'd met the right person, and it
made a big difference." In the first summer they dated, O'Meara
won the California State Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and the
Mexican Amateur. Ever the pragmatist, he resisted turning pro
until the next year, after he had obtained his degree in
marketing. "At that point I had no real idea if I could make it
on Tour or not," he says.

O'Meara rose to the occasion and got through Q school on his
first try, then had solid finishes on the West Coast and Florida
swings. But even after O'Meara had toughed out the difficult
transition to his new swing, his calling card was consistency
more than brilliance. He has never been a long hitter or even a
particularly straight driver, but his distance control, his
textbook putting stroke and his headiness have kept him among the
top 30 money winners every year since 1984, except for 1993 and
'94, when he temporarily suffered from burnout.

O'Meara's most valuable competitive gift is that, like his
father, he's a closer. O'Meara tied for eighth in the '84 Buick
Open--the first time he had held a third-round lead in a Tour
event--but since then has won nine of the next 14 tournaments in
which he led or shared the lead after 54 holes. His conversion
rate of more than 64% far exceeds the Tour average (about 30%).
Jack Nicklaus, the finest closer of the modern era, won two out
of three times (24 of 36) when he led after 54 holes. Among
active players who came into this year with 13 or more
victories, the only two who approach that ratio are O'Meara and
Lanny Wadkins (62%). "Mark gets nervous, but he ain't scared,"
says his caddie, Jerry Higginbotham. "It's more common than you
think on Tour to see guys, top players, get in the heat and have
their hands shaking so bad they can barely get the ball on the
tee. When I hand Mark his ball, his hands don't shake." Says
O'Meara, "I take pride in being able to get it done when I need
to."

Still, he seemed overmatched in the firm conditions of the
majors, in which he had only seven top 10 finishes coming into
this year. Haney believes he knows what held his pupil back.
"Once Mark became dedicated to improving his swing, he became a
closet perfectionist," he says. "I believe Mark underachieved,
and especially in majors, because he wouldn't give himself
permission to win unless he was happy with his mechanics and his
ball striking. When he was satisfied and confident, he would get
in the hunt and win, but that perfectionist attitude killed him
in majors because the courses are so demanding, they made him try
too hard. Finally he has learned that just being Mark O'Meara is
good enough."

The key to that realization has been Woods. In 1996, when a
20-year-old Woods moved to within a three-wood shot of O'Meara
at Isleworth, the two became friends. On the course, on the
practice tee that lies 40 paces from the O'Meara house or at the
O'Meara kitchen counter, the inquisitive and analytical Woods
has peppered the older man with questions. "Mark thinks playing
a role in helping Tiger reach his potential is a way of giving
back to golf," says Alicia. "Of course, there's no question
being around Tiger has energized Mark."

Woods calls O'Meara "a true friend. I can ask him anything and
get an honest answer." Their age difference is irrelevant, Woods
says, because "basically we relate to each other as two warriors.
I love that Mark is so competitive. It's amazing the ways he has
found to beat me. Sometimes it drives me crazy, but he's taught
me a lot about the game."

Actually, the short-term benefits of the relationship have been
in O'Meara's favor. In addition to forcing Woods to peel off a
few bills after their friendly games, O'Meara nipped Woods in a
stirring duel at Pebble Beach in 1997, negated Woods's
birdie-birdie finish at the British Open this July, and in the
36-hole final of the World Match Play in October was a model of
opportunism in beating Woods one up. The key moment came at the
34th hole, on which O'Meara scraped his ball onto the green in
three, then holed a 10-footer for par. Woods, only 10 feet away
from a birdie, three-putted. O'Meara closed out the match with a
15-footer for birdie from off the final green.

The one-sidedness of their confrontations has been enough to
make some people wonder if O'Meara's friendship with Woods is a
ruse to sap Tiger of his competitive strength. Woods laughs at
such suggestions, pointing to the 18-inch putt he refused to
concede to O'Meara in the Match Play final. O'Meara also scoffs
at the theory. "I'm not that smart," he says. "When we play, I
want to see his very best. It's absolutely awesome, and it makes
me better."

Bottom line: Hanging with Woods has been another smart move by
O'Meara. "To conjure up some way to stay with that kid's game
every day, that's an immeasurable tool for your confidence,"
says Faldo. Adds Cook, "Mark has always been quietly confident,
but I see this little bit of cockiness since he's been playing
with Tiger." Higginbotham confirms that while his boss might
lowball for public consumption, inside the ropes he talks tough.
"After Mark birdied the 17th at Augusta to go eight under, we
saw that [David] Duval had just finished with the same score.
Mark looked at me and said, 'I think that's one short, bud.'
Then at the British, we're walking down the final fairway before
Mark has to hit a five-iron into the wind to a narrow green, and
he's almost laughing, saying, 'I can't believe how calm I am.'
That was beautiful."

O'Meara's lowball days are over, which will make it that much
harder for him to remain a force next year. The kids he mastered
this season are only getting better, which is something a
42-year-old at the top of his game seldom does. "Realistically,
my plan is to wind down in about three years, a little like
Bruce Lietzke," O'Meara says, only nobody's buying. If 1998
proved anything, it was that this guy never stops reaching.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. [Mark O'Meara behind wheel of boat] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK FINISHING TOUCH When O'Meara is in the lead after three rounds, he is twice as likely to win as the average Tour player. [Mark O'Meara swinging golf club] COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES PERFECT IMAGE O'Meara, with (clockwise from top) Shaun, Alicia and Michelle, wants to be seen as polite, accessible and normal. [Mark O'Meara, Shaun O'Meara, Michelle O'Meara and Alicia O'Meara] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK HELPING HAND O'Meara was there for Woods (right) during the '97 Ryder Cup and for countless conversations at Isleworth. [Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods]

"Mark wouldn't give himself permission to win [majors]," Haney
says. "He has learned that just being Mark O'Meara is good
enough."

Even Alicia regarded O'Meara suspiciously at first. "He was
almost too nice," she says. "I was thinking, This guy is kind of
slick."

"To conjure up some way to stay with [Woods's] game every day,
that's an immeasurable tool for your confidence," says Faldo.

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)