Old Buddies

After 30 years, FOT (Friends of Tiger) John Cook and Mark O'Meara were in a time warp as they returned to the scene of their first duel
May 31, 2009

A week afterfinishing a disappointing eighth at the Players Championship, Tiger Woods wasmiked up for a clinic at Tiger Jam XII, his annual rock and roll and golffund-raiser in Las Vegas. Since he hates to work alone, Woods had brought anaccomplice, Tour pro John Cook. ¬∂ "The first thing he says is, 'Cookie,you're going to hit all the shots today,'" says Cook. "I tell him,'Tiger, you're the one who needs the lesson.' The crowd loved it, and he lovedit." ¬∂ The next morning at the Tiger Jam pro-am, Cook teed it up in a groupthat included fellow pro and FOT (Friend of Tiger) Mark O'Meara—who had missedthe previous day's clinic to attend the graduation from Southern Cal of his22-year-old daughter, Michelle—plus Adrian Young, the drummer for the rock bandNo Doubt. "Adrian had a Mohawk going," says O'Meara, flashing histrademark grin. "It was crazy."

So what were twogolfers in their 50s doing hanging around at Tiger Jam? Cook and O'Meara aretwo of Woods's closest friends and confidantes, even though they're nearly twodecades older than Tiger. Nothing strange there. An older player taking ayounger pro under his wing is one of golf's enduring traditions. For example, ayoung O'Meara was mentored by Ben Hogan, while Cook was guided by Byron Nelsonand Ken Venturi.

But Cook andO'Meara were linked long before they tutored Tiger. Last week they were atCanterbury Golf Club in suburban Cleveland, the place where their competitiverelationship first took root. It was at Canterbury in 1979 that O'Meara upsetdefending champion Cook in one of the most one-sided (8 and 7) U.S. Amateurfinals. Thirty years later they returned for the Senior PGA Championship, thesenior circuit's oldest (70 years) and most prestigious major championship,and, naturally, were paired for the first two rounds. "It's great to beback where I got my clock cleaned," said the 51-year-old Cook, tonguefirmly in cheek.

Neither playerexperienced flashbacks. "I'm 52. It's getting hard to rememberanything," O'Meara said, but he did recall one vivid moment from thatlong-ago match. In '79, when he had a chance to go 9 up with nine holes toplay, "my first thought was, If I lose this thing now, it will be thebiggest [collapse] in the history of the world."

On May 20 O'Mearaand his 19-year-old son, Shaun (who plays on the UC Irvine team), attended Game1 of the Cleveland Cavaliers' playoff series against O'Meara's beloved OrlandoMagic, scoring seats right behind the Cavs' bench. Mark was caught on TV byTiger, who fired off a text message.

"Tiger waslike, Hey man, aren't you supposed to be getting your rest?" O'Meara says."I said, Listen, I'm here to support my team, and I'm sitting a foot fromLeBron James, who told me to tell you to get your act in gear. Tiger texted meback, saying, Tell LeBron I have nine MVPs and 14 championships. Then he textedme again. And I'm not done. It was pretty funny."

History doesn'tusually come with storybook endings, and for these rivals last weekend's finishwas no exception. O'Meara and Cook went into Sunday's final round on the fringeof contention, but neither became a factor. O'Meara finished 14th, with athree-over 283, nine shots behind winner Michael Allen (page G6). Cook, a shotbehind O'Meara in 17th place, was one of many players baffled by Canterbury'swicked greens.

The one-strokedifference symbolized how slightly Cook's and O'Meara's lives and careers havediverged. On the course O'Meara, always the better putter, made more big onesand validated his résumé by winning a Masters and a British Open in 1998, atage 41. Cook, the better ball-striker, was two mulligans away from winning the'92 British Open and PGA Championship. (He missed a two-footer on the 71st holeat Muirfield and hit a a poor approach on the 72nd hole at Bellerive.)

Off the course,they have been in lockstep. Both players are Californians who migrated to thetax haven of Florida. Cook says he saved enough on taxes to put two kidsthrough college, but, says O'Meara, "I saved more because I moved theresooner. I was the one who persuaded John to get out of California." Theyboth ended up in the exclusive Isleworth subdivision, Tiger's neighborhood,near Orlando.

O'Meara still ownshis giant Mark O'Mansion at Isleworth but splits time between his Park City,Utah, summer home and a house near the Rice campus in Houston, which he shareswith the new love in his life, Meredith Berkman, a pharmaceutical rep. Theyplan to marry on June 27. O'Meara's 29-year marriage to his first wife, Alicia,fell apart 18 months ago. Until he met Berkman last fall, O'Meara wasdisconsolate, and it showed in his play.

Cook was there forhis friend. "He didn't understand it," Cook says. "Gosh, how manytimes did we have the same conversation from January through September lastyear, usually on the road at dinner?"

O'Meara was alsothere for Cook in '92 after that British Open cruelly slipped away. They shareda house that week, and when Cook returned after the final round, O'Meara waswaiting with kind words and Old Jock beer. "It looked like motor oil,"O'Meara says.

Now, 17 yearslater, the two have seen their roles somewhat reversed on the Champions tour.O'Meara has yet to win there, while Cook has done so twice. "I lovecompeting out here," Cook says. "I've been competing since I was 10. Iwouldn't know what else to do. When I'm 75 I'll probably be playingshuffleboard and some guy will say, I've got the winner, and it'll probably beMark. And you know—we'll still try to beat each other."

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THREE PHOTOSPhotographs by DARREN CARROLLFRIENDLY RIVALS O'Meara (far right) came in 14th and Cook 17th at the Senior PGA, which was won by Allen (opposite) in his Champions tour debut. PHOTOPhotograph by DARREN CARROLLCAREER REVERSAL Allen hopes to become the initial player to win first as a senior and then on the PGA Tour.

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