Nice guys don't always finish last

 

It was nearing the end of the 1994 season and Mark O'Meara, with eight tournament victories to his credit over the previous 10 years, was languishing in 86th position in the US money list. "Don't feel sorry for me," he told sympathisers. "I've learned a lot about myself. I've learned that the whole secret of this game is to stay committed to the long term."

Four years on, those words could be a clarion call to any jaded practitioner who fears the good times have gone. For at 41, Mark O'Meara is "Player of the Year" in the US, having captured the Masters, the British Open and the World Matchplay titles, while rising to second position in the world rankings.

The dramatic turnaround in O'Meara's fortunes surprised many, including himself. But it is a measure of the man that it was achieved without provoking even a tinge of envy from his rivals.

"Mark sets a pretty high standard for himself and even when he was in a slump, he never changed out here," said reigning US Open champion Lee Janzen. "He remained a tremendously nice guy and a real credit to the tour. He's the kind of guy that a lot of guys try to be like. They respect him; they see the way he acts and they try to act a little more his way."

O'Meara's innate dignity has never been more evident than in the moments of his greatest triumphs. "I have achieved more than I ever dreamed I could in the game of golf, but to win a major is truly a dream come true," he said after capturing the Masters last April.

Three months later, windswept and weary after a wonderful playoff victory over his courageous compatriot Brian Watts at Royal Birkdale, his reaction encompassed a broader view. "This golf course is a very special place for my family and myself," he said.

He went on: "I came here in 1987 and won the Laurence Batley International on the European Tour and now I have won what is, in my opinion, the most special championship there is. I can't say how proud I am to be the 1998 Open champion."

Then, after his recent triumph at Wentworth, where he beat his young friend Tiger Woods in a classic final, O'Meara was in a reflective mood. "When I look back on growing up in California, I think of the way I started the game at 13, with not a whole lot of money and not much certainty of what was to happen in my future," he said.

"Now, as I sit here at 41, having won the tournaments I have throughout the world, including two majors in one year while finishing fourth in another (USPGA Championship), I realise that my game has kept improving. I have become a better player, more together mentally. When I hit a bad shot - and I still do - I just move forward now and laugh it off."

His success has been particularly pleasing to his many admirers in this country, some of whom had the opportunity of seeing him in action at Waterville, Ballybunion and The K Club last July. That was when he and Woods came here as guests of golfing enthusiasts J P McManus and Dermot Desmond prior to the British Open.

And there are others who recall his first visit in 1987 when he came here to compete in the Irish Open and brought his father, Bob, with him. And observers could appreciate the special feeling he seemed to have for links terrain as he shot a final round of 70 to finish ninth behind Bernhard Langer at Portmarnock.

All the while, he maintained a golfing philosophy to fit his quiet, gentlemanly disposition. "In life, there are only two things that can be happening: you're either getting better or you're getting worse," he said. "The only other option is that you're dead and six-feet under and at that point, you can't get any worse.

"But if you're only getting better or worse, you have to weigh the situation and see where you're coming from. If you know in your own mind `Gosh, I'm not doing very good,' then you need to find a way to turn the tide, buck the trend and get things going in the other direction.

"The secret to winning is standing up and having a feeling that you're going to be able to produce certain types of shots. It's your mind, not having it run too far ahead nor too far back, but in sequence with what you're doing. You have to stay on an even keel. Guys who are playing well just kind of get in a flow. If you stay patient, sooner or later the breakthrough is going to come."

As he struggled with his game back in 1994, O'Meara had a wife, Alicia, and two young children at home in Orlando and the rigours of life on the road were beginning to wear him down. Emotionally, he had to cope with the fact that his long time caddie and friend, Danny Wanstall, from Jacksonville, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

But the player kept smiling. And while achieving a turnaround in his fortunes through the unlikely route of a victory in the 1994 Argentine Open, he embarked on fund-raising activities for Wanstall, which he continues to this day.

The pay-off from Argentina came on the Florida Swing the following spring, when he outscored Nick Faldo to capture the Honda Classic. And he beat Faldo once more to win the 1996 Mercedes Championship before going on to resist a storming rally from Woods in the 1997 Pebble Beach Pro-Am, winning it for a fifth time.

In the meantime, there were other victories in the Canadian Open (1995), Greater Greensboro Classic (1996) and last year's Buick Invitational and Lancome Trophy.

Yet, looking back on the build-up to this year's Masters, there was nothing to indicate that O'Meara might be about to achieve the "major" breakthrough which had eluded him since failing to make the cut in his US Open debut in 1981. Granted, he was tied second in the Mercedes and tied sixth in the Bob Hope Classic but this was the sort of early-season form one expected from him.

Even in his favourite event, the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, he made an undistinguished defence of the title with an opening round of 76. And his finishes in the four tournaments in which he competed prior to the Masters were: Buick Invitational - T57th; Honda Classic - T22nd; Bay Hill Invitational - Missed Cut; Players' Championship - T42nd.

Indeed, in 13 previous appearances at Augusta, he had managed only one top-10 finish and that was in 1992 when he was tied fourth behind compatriot Fred Couples. Now, he was competing in a major for the 59th time. His time.

Following a birdie on the 71st hole with another, from 20 feet at the last, he experienced the great joy of victory by one shot over David Duval and Couples who were tied second. With a nine-under-par aggregate of 279, O'Meara lived out a fairytale by having his so-called golfing brother, Woods, fit him with the coveted green jacket.

Birkdale, however, could hardly have been more different, especially as a setting, with towering dunes rather than towering pines dominating the landscape and howling winds placing daunting, physical demands on the players. But most of all, it was a test of patience, for which O'Meara was perfectly fitted.

Nor could one fail to detect a certain symbiosis about a situation in which Woods was again in the foreground, albeit in another supporting role. This time it was as an unavailing challenger who had the crowds tingling with excitement as he fired a final round of 66 to be only a stroke outside a play-off place.

The pair, who are clearly good for each other, play regularly together as members of the Isleworth Resort near Orlando, where O'Meara brings his father, Bob, along on a regular basis. Then, away from golf, he is a regular among attendances at Orlando Magic basketball matches and the Orlando Solar Bears hockey games.

He also enjoys skiing in Utah and fishing from his boat in Florida waters and can often be seen hanging out with baseball superstar Ken Griffey Jnr, one of his neighbours. Indeed he is well known for having a good time away from the tour. Yet a natural unpretentiousness is evident in the fact that despite his considerable wealth, he stays in extremely modest hotels when he's on the road, pursuing his craft.

Though the player emphasises a greater mental strength, his Los Angeles-based fitness guru, Keith Kleven, claims that the change in his client this year has been as much physical as mental. Kleven, who was at Wentworth recently to watch O'Meara and Woods battle for the World Matchplay title, devises training schedules for both players.

"Mark has always been a fairly relaxed guy." he said. "Of course, he doesn't have to worry much about anything any more and financial security has also had an effect on his body. He is so loose and his swing is smoother than it's ever been. It is remarkable at his age. I have to treat him less and less."

He will be a key player for the US in the President's Cup matches to be played at Royal Melbourne in December. Which prompted him to recall a rather special incident in the 1996 matches when he presented his skipper, Arnold Palmer, with five wins from five matches.

Confronted by a particularly tricky situation, O'Meara remembered: "I just kept thinking how would AP (Palmer) handle this? Would be hitch up his pants and go forward? You bet he would." Now that he has joined Palmer as a major winner, he can think such thoughts as a fellow traveller.