Mark O’Meara: Mark of a champion

Mark O'Meara in action. Picture: Jane Barlow
Mark O'Meara in action. Picture: Jane Barlow
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On his previous visit to take part in an Open at Muirfield, Mark O’Meara remembers being put in his place by a young fan. He was on the putting green, just yards from the spot where we are speaking now, in some heaven-sent shade, near the clubhouse on the famous links.

Being here reminds O’Meara of something that occurred 11 years ago, before all the complications in his relationship with Tiger Woods, before the storms – both metaphorically, and literally – that blew them both off course when the going was so good. At the time, Woods had some press duties to take care of, and so O’Meara told his friend that he would wait for him in the courtesy car they were sharing.

“As I was walking off the putting green there was a little girl with a visor and I signed an autograph for her,” he recalls, casting his mind back to a tournament where both his and Woods’ title challenge came unstuck after extreme weather hit on the Saturday afternoon. “And the little girl with the visor turned round and showed her mummy, who says: ‘Oh honey, isn’t that nice? You have Tiger Woods’ best friend’s autograph’. I was like: ‘Wait a minute I have won the Open championship too!’

“When I got back to the car, I told Tiger that this is the level I am at now. It is not Mark O’Meara, Open winner, but Mark O’Meara, Tiger Woods’ best friend.”

The 2002 story is relayed with good humour by O’Meara, who has long become used to being defined by his relationship to Woods. This was all well and good when the pair were riding high in their careers, and when they were taking private jets back across the Atlantic with the precious cargo of the Claret Jug safely stored in a seat beside them.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was O’Meara, then in his early forties, who was temporary owner of the trophy in 1998. Less surprisingly, Woods provided the means of high-end transport as they left Lancashire en route to Orlando after O’Meara had prevailed in a play-off at Royal Birkdale to win the Open Championship for the first time. Given the Californian’s prowess on the burnt links land on his return to Muirfield this week, it seems prudent to add a “last win to date” caveat. However, O’Meara’s eight over par 78 yesterday, after an opening round score of 67, has meant he slipped back into the pack.

Still, he has made a decent fist of mixing with the younger, more glamorous crowd. Included in this group is Woods, his old pal. Some have wondered 
whether he really is now an old pal, and whether various “life events” have left them estranged from one another.

O’Meara doesn’t dispute that he and Woods are not as close as they once were. However, Woods sent a text message to O’Meara from East Lothian at the start of this week, which wondered: ‘Hey, where are you, man?!” Where O’Meara happened to be was waiting for a commercial flight to Scotland, after he had competed in the US Senior Open in Nebraska.

“I was like: I am about to step on an aeroplane, I have to go commercial now. I don’t get to go ‘TWA’ anymore. The old Tiger Woods Airways days have gone ‘bye bye’. He was like, yes, you were spoiled back then.

“And I was.”

Woods once said that their vastly 
different age was irrelevant, because they related to each as “two warriors”. While this might have once been true, O’Meara references the gap in years between them as being one reason why they have slipped further apart in recent years. It’s not the age gap itself necessarily, more the fact that since turning 50 six years ago, O’Meara has competed on the 
veterans’ Champions Tour.

It means he is challenging for another series of major titles, including the Senior Open championship title next week, on what will be an emotional return to Birkdale.

“Because I am not playing the regular tour, I just don’t get to see Tiger very much,” he says. “The fact is we don’t play practice rounds, we don’t get to spend as much time together. He also went through a difficult patch in his life, and I went through something similar in my life.”

This “difficult patch” was a period three years ago when it seemed new revelations about Woods’ infidelities to his wife Elin were emerging on a daily basis. With Woods going to ground, the spotlight fell on players who were close to him. More often than not, they could not provide much input, and some resented being called to account for behaviour that was so obviously beyond the pale.

O’Meara said he was disappointed by the revelations, and disappointed that his friend had not sought him out. They were drifting further apart, but perhaps given the near 20-year age gap, and their responsibilities in terms of young children, this was inevitable.

In any case, O’Meara was having his own problems. Alicia, his wife and with whom he had two adored children of his own, dropped the bombshell that she wanted a divorce after nearly 30 years of marriage. He says he was walking around the fairways “like a ghost” for months, perhaps years afterwards. It precipitated O’Meara’s departure from Florida, where he lived a few doors or, more accurately, a few acres of prime real estate away from Woods.

“Now I am very happy” says O’Meara. “I live in Houston, he lives in Florida. We were different generations to start with to be honest with you. My ten, 11 years around Tiger were tremendous.

“I felt like he was my younger brother.”

“Besides being a talented golfer, and doing your tricks on the golf course, you still have feelings, you still have emotions,” continues O’Meara. “Lord knows, he went through a difficult time in his life. You learn from mistakes, and you try and move on with your life. He has two great kids, and Elin is a lovely mother to their two children.

“Obviously he has a new relationship – I think you have to have some serenity off the course to play at your fullest on the course. When you have a lot of turmoil off the course it is very difficult to compete at the ultimate level out here.” With girlfriend Lindsey Vonn in tow, Woods has again looked more like 
himself this week at Muirfield.

O’Meara learned for himself that there is a connection between good golf and a stable home life. When his own support network disintegrated in 2007, he struggled badly. “It killed me,” he says. “It crushed me.” It had more impact on him than winning his majors. There he was at 41, on top of the world. At 51, he was trailing in at 62nd position in the Champions Tour, below rivals who were years older than him.

His wife was at the stage in her life where she “decided she needed to go and figure herself out or find herself or do whatever it was she wanted to do”. To say he was taken aback is an understatement.

“It is tough to understand how it happens in human relationships where you have been together as partners and have been a good team,” he reflects. “And she was a great partner of mine and a great mother to the children. And then, after 30 years, it is over. Suddenly there is no communication.”

Happily, O’Meara has found love again. Meredith, his new wife and the reason why he made the move to Houston, is with him in Gullane this week, along with his Aberdeen-born coach Bruce Davidson, a highly-rated golf instructor who is also based in Houston. Running into him was another happy consequence of a romance that he credits with kick-starting his life again.

“The guy upstairs has a bit of a plan, and you know what? A new woman came into my life. She’s younger, she’s beautiful. I now have a 12 year-old stepson, and it’s rejuvenated me.

“It’s given me purpose again in my life, to have a partner and a team-mate who can be here for me off the course.

“It took me about a year-and-a-half to start again,” he adds. “I felt as though I had the rug pulled out from beneath me. I had the uneasy feeling in my stomach, the knots. I could not understand why this was happening to me. But I am a committed guy, most golfers are. This is a difficult life out there. When you are playing professional golf, a lot of time people just see the glamour, they see the TV, the money, but there is a lot of down time and hotels and travelling.

“I am not complaining, but it is not as easy as people think.”

Like Ben Hogan, O’Meara enjoyed his most productive year at the age of 41, when he won two major titles.

The first success came at the Masters, which he won by a shot from Fred Couples and David Duval, and even now he can barely believe he had the stamina – both mentally and physically – to sink the winning putt for a birdie at the 18th green at Augusta. It felt good to win courtesy of something brilliant he did, rather than because someone else messed up. Confidence flooded through him.

“Watching the history of the Masters, you always wonder how anyone could make a putt on the 18th green of Augusta National to win it, and there I was – and it went in,” he says.

“To have had that thrilling opportunity at 41 and have Tiger put the green jacket on me, because he was the defending champion – all those things were the icing on the cake for me.”

Months later, he did it again – holding off Woods, among others, to win the Open after a play-off against Brian Watts. At the time, he was a regular guest on Woods’ private jet, and his young friend asked to look at the Claret Jug. “If I had just shot one shot better, I would have kicked your butt in the play-off,” he jested with O’Meara. “I will never forget it,” he recalls. “We were in his plane, and he was looking at the trophy, and I said: ‘the funny thing about the beautiful trophy Tiger is that I know darned well that your name is going to be on that trophy more than one time, trust me’.”

O’Meara will drive rather than fly down to Birkdale tomorrow, and re-familiarise himself with a course where he also won his first European tournament title in 1987, helped by two eagles on the back nine in the final round. At the Open there four years later, he finished third. “I was not surprised necessarily in ’98 to be in a position to win and to have an opportunity to win, because I knew I had played well there before,” he says. “I had fond memories.”

He is still looking for his maiden senior major championship title. It feels like destiny that he might claim it at Royal Birkdale. The nearest he has come is when finishing runner-up to Tom Watson at Muirfield six years ago. The field is becoming ever stronger, with Colin Montgomerie set to make his seniors major bow on British soil next week.

“Colin has had a wonderful career,” says O’Meara. “In my estimation, what he did for European golf has been tremendous, certainly when he won the Order of Merit seven times in a row.

“The disappointing aspect, of course, is that he has never won in America, never won a major championship. He certainly had the opportunities. Lady Luck just was not there for him.”

Never won in America, never won a major championship. And yet no-one needs to remind O’Meara that Montgomerie was recently inducted in the world golf Hall of Fame, an honour that mysteriously continues to elude the American, who has won titles all across the globe, including in Japan and 
Australia.

“It is disappointing,” says O’Meara. “If I look at the Hall of Fame and see the players that are in there, not to be disrespectful, but my question is: if you look at my career as a player, not just my career in America, but globally too – plus the fact I won the US Amateur – it is disappointing to see some of the players that have got in before me.

“Fred [Couples] got in last year,” he adds. “I have won more tournaments than Fred, I had won more majors than Fred. I wonder, is it a true Hall of Fame or is it a popularity contest?”

Even this rejection pales in comparison with the sting of not being asked to be Ryder Cup captain. The “he should have been a Ryder Cup skipper” is a familiar refrain in golf, and it is not possible for everyone to be one. However. O’Meara, like Sandy Lyle, appears to have sturdy grounds for being given the honour. As yet, however, there has been nothing. And he isn’t expecting the call to come now.

“Not ever getting the nod to be a Ryder Cup captain was a little bit hurtful,” concedes O’Meara, who believes that he should have been asked at least once in the past dozen years, if only to endeavour to get the best out of Woods. “I was in the prime of my career, and my relationship with Tiger was good, as well as the fact that I played on five Ryder Cup teams – two winning, two losing and one tie.

“I felt like some of the other guys they gave it to did not have the careers I had, nor did they play on as many Ryder Cup teams. But when I look at how well the Europeans played, and how badly beaten the Americans were, I was kind of glad I was on the river fly-fishing, rather than getting hammered at the K Club.

“Tom Lehman can take that knock.”

He has been overlooked, too, for the Presidents Cup role of United States skipper, a role currently occupied by Couples after he was re-appointed for a third time. “Really, is there not someone else suitable for that job?” wonders O’Meara.

“Maybe I need a PR guy,” he smiles. “Maybe I need you to be my PR guy!”

However, having managed to turn his own life around so successfully, it’s hard to see how O’Meara needs any advice on how to put a positive spin on things.