Ask Mark O’Meara to identify the single biggest highlight of his distinguished association with Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament – one that began as far back as 1980 – and the immediate response is not what most golf fans might first expect.
Those anticipating the former Open champion to give a detailed description of the beautifully judged and timely six-yard putt he holed across the 18th green in 1998 to win American golf’s so-called “rite of spring” will be disappointed. As will others who think the memory of O’Meara’s long-time pal and then defending champion, Tiger Woods, slipping the iconic Green Jacket over his shoulders will surely have resonated longest with the now 58-year-old Houston resident.
No, for O’Meara the most significant episode in his 35-year old relationship with the year’s first (male) major actually has nothing to do with golf. Well, maybe a little in that it took place within the high and well-guarded fences of the elite and secretive estate that is Augusta National. But it occurred more than a decade after what was his first major victory.
“It was 2009,” recalls O’Meara. “My wife and I got married in June that year. But, two months before, I brought Meredith and her son, Aidan, to Augusta National for the first time. I picked them up at the airport and drove straight to the club. We went slowly down Magnolia Lane and parked right in front of the clubhouse. I took Aidan into the past champions’ locker room – where he tried on the Green Jacket – while Meredith waited on the balcony out front.
“Fred Couples and Mike Weir were there. So was Bernhard Langer. I asked them to look after Aidan because I had something to do. I went outside, got down on one knee and proposed. Right there on the balcony.”
That piece of romantic non-fiction aside, O’Meara’s Masters history is not without its unlikely aspects. Back in ’98, the then 41-year-old was at an age where most golfers have seen their best days and had their best shots at Grand Slam glory. And not until his ball disappeared into the cup on the 72nd green did O’Meara hold the lead by himself. As stealthy victories go, his is hard to beat.
“Making birdies on three of the last four holes, including the last two, is something that has never left me,” he says. “I still think of standing on the 18th and making the putt to win. Over the years I’ve watched so many players on that green and I still get nervous for them. I wonder how in the heck anyone can do that? So for me to have done it is pretty amazing. I certainly will never forget the feeling I had when the ball went in.”
More recently, as he has aged and the course has been repeatedly lengthened, O’Meara has inevitably found low scores more difficult to achieve at Augusta. A decade has passed since he made a halfway cut. And with two-times champion Ben Crenshaw – a direct contemporary – opting out after this year, O’Meara is quick to acknowledge his days as a Masters competitor may be numbered.
“I haven’t had much success the last few years, but I still feel like I can make the cut if I play decently,” he says. “I still hit it good enough. As long as I feel like that I’m going to play. Once I can’t do that any more I’ll call it quits. If I’m out there just to play two rounds then wave bye-bye, there is no point in even playing.
“Having said that, I’m realistic. The golf course is so much bigger now than it was back in ’98. Last year gave me pause. I felt like I hit the ball as well as I did when I shot 67 on the last day to win. But I shot 77. Putting and short game have something to do with that, but the biggest factor is how much longer the holes are. I’m hitting 3-irons and rescue clubs into many greens now.”
That refrain is these days a familiar one at the highest level of the game. While no one is arguing that an ability to hit long drives should not bring some advantage, many are those who feel that edge has become outrageously disproportional. It is a view with which O’Meara has some sympathy.
“I understand how distance is such an issue in the game,” he says. “So to combat the length young guys hit their drives, Augusta National had to be lengthened. But I’m not so sure that was the only thing they could have done. A bit of the strategic element has been lost: when to be aggressive; when to play safe; where to put your ball on the greens – that sort of stuff. You should be able to win with your short game and your putting, as well as your driving.
“Think about it. So many of the truly memorable holes in golf are relatively short. The Postage Stamp at Troon is one. The 19th at Riviera is another. You have to be smart to play them well though. I’d like to see creativity rewarded more at Augusta. I’d speed the course up, make it firmer. I’d take away the secondary cut of rough. I’d thin out the trees so that the potential for risky and exciting recovery shots is increased. I like to see the very best players challenged in that sort of way.”
Speaking of which, it was confirmed on Friday that O’Meara’s close friend, Tiger Woods, will make an appearance in Georgia this coming week. Like everyone else, the 14-times major champion’s former neighbour at Bay Hill in Orlando is keen to know if he has recovered both physically and mentally from the sad and pathetic figure who duffed or thinned almost every chip during his last competitive appearances two months ago.
“To be honest, I don’t have much communication with Tiger these days,” says O’Meara, speaking before Woods confirmed he’d be seeking a fifth Green Jacket this week. “I still want to be there for him. I’d love to help him if I can. I still consider him a friend. But I can only do as much as he wants me to do. Ever since the (2009) accident when he went undercover for a while, he has had a pretty good shell around him.
“We last talked in February. These are tough times for him. Like everyone else, I’m not sure if he can come back to the top or not. But I would never underestimate him, even if the short game issue is a tough one to deal with.
“I thought he might have played this week in Houston. But I don’t know what is going through his head. I hear he has been practising. But sooner or later he is going to have to get out and play. If he has what it looks like – chipping yips – then the road back is long and hard. I know what that feels like. I went through the same thing with my putting.”
On a happier note, later this year O’Meara is due to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame at St Andrews just before the Open Championship in July. It is an overdue tribute to a man who – unusually for an American – has won all over the planet, as well as 16 times on the PGA Tour. Golfers in Argentina, Canada, Japan (twice), Australia, England (three times), France and Dubai have all seen O’Meara lift trophies. Throw in a World Cup victory alongside Woods, his 1979 US Amateur Championship, a senior “major” (the 2010 Players Championship), five Ryder Cup, two Presidents Cup and seven Dunhill Cup appearances, and it can easily be argued that O’Meara’s admission to the Hall is but a particularly egregious oversight finally rectified.
“The Hall of Fame thing is huge for me,” he says. “It’s as special as anything that has happened in my professional life. To be recognised in such a way is amazing – and to have the ceremony in the home of golf just makes it doubly so. I’m an Open champion and that will always be the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my career. If I could only have one major victory I’d be hard pressed not to choose the Open.”
With the Masters a close second, no doubt.