MARK O'Meara knew the moment his winning putt toppled into the hole to land him the 1998 Open at Royal Birkdale that he would never again lift the championship.
This had nothing to do with an urge to retire, but the fact that he was already 41, and the conviction that his annus mirabilis – he had won the Masters just two months earlier – would be impossible to repeat.
Through the ten years that have elapsed since golf's oldest major was last staged on the great Merseyside links, the next best thing for the genial American has been watching his great friend, Tiger Woods, develop into the most formidable player in the history of the game.
Each of the 13 majors Woods has captured since O'Meara's triumph at Birkdale has provided the latter with the kind of vicarious elation that is appropriate to a man who regards himself as "a kind of older brother" to Tiger. Such a thrill, of course, will not be possible this week, Woods having been the victim of a near-crippling knee condition that required surgery and will render him inactive until next year.
As a consequence, many observers have proposed the suggestion that this 137th Open has been so devalued that it should be accompanied by an asterisk in the record books to denote Woods's absence. O'Meara yesterday took issue with that contention, while readily conceding that his friend will be "sorely missed" at Birkdale and at the other two great events remaining on the calendar, the USPGA Championship next month and the Ryder Cup in September.
During his deliberations, O'Meara also offered some appealing and humorous insights into Woods's character and the qualities that make him, by an almost immeasurable distance, superior to his contemporaries. "Listen," said O'Meara, "even as great as Tiger Woods is and as much a fan of his I am, and knowing what he's meant to the game over the past 11 years, I think even he would have to admit that nobody, no matter who it is, is bigger than the game itself.
"Having said that, he's going to be sorely missed this week, there's no denying that. I know how badly he wants to be here. I talked to him a week ago just after his own tournament in Washington had finished. It's been, what, three-and-a-half weeks since the surgery on his knee and he's just hanging out because he can't do much.
"A few friends of his, including myself, over the past three years have known how bad his knee has been. There was a lot of speculation about it and most of it was wrong. He'll come back as good as or better than ever as long as he does what the doctors and the therapists tell him. That might be bad news for some of the other players on tour, but that's how his determination is to succeed. He lives for being out here, he lives for winning."
Woods also, as O'Meara testified, has a tendency common to many great athletes towards a mild hypochondria. His pal assured listeners that, whenever the world No1 complained about his health, it was time to head for the bookmakers and make a serious investment. The anecdotal evidence came in response to a question about Woods's claim that he hadn't felt particularly well for ten years.
"Well, I don't know about not feeling good for ten years," said O'Meara. "I mean, if you make $100 million a year, you got to feel pretty good, I would think. Listen, Tiger, Michael Jordan, who's a great basketball player, they have their best games when they have the flu.
"I've played many times with Tiger, like before the Masters, and he'd come up with some malarkey excuse while we're on a practice round and he'd say to me – he wouldn't say it to you in the media – he's got a sniffle or a cough, he doesn't feel so great. I'd say, are you kidding? Then I'd think, okay, I better go bet on him. Even though I don't bet on golf – I'm not really a betting man at all – if Tiger Woods tells me he's got the sniffles or a cough or his leg or something is bothering him, I'm thinking, this is prime time to have a bet on him. Superstars like him always have to have something they can fall back on if things don't go right, but things always go right for him. It's not like he doesn't make enough putts, it's not like they don't go straight in the middle."
It seems impossible to resist the notion that the thousands who tramp the links this week will do so with a heightened sense of Woods' absence.
It is a phenomenon that is without precedent in the 148 years of existence of the great tournament.