No love lost as Woods acclaims O'Meara

 

Self-proclaimed golfing brothers provided a sparkling climax to the Cisco World Matchplay Championship here on the West Course yesterday in elusive, summery sunshine. And after the 36 holes of the final had been covered in a stunning betterball of 20-under-par, Mark O'Meara had secured a onehole victory over his young soul-mate, Tiger Woods.

With an approximate afternoon round of 64, O'Meara became the first American to capture this title since Corey Pavin in 1993. He also became the first to complete the treble of the US Masters, British Open and this coveted crown, in the same season. In the process, the top cheque for £170,000 brought his earnings for a two-week trip to this side of the Atlantic to more than £350,000, including estimated appearance fees.

"Given the difference of our age and talent, this has been a tremendous victory for me," said O'Meara afterwards. "To win this championship after everything that has gone before in the Masters and the British Open, makes it a dream year."

For his part, Woods was admirably gracious in defeat. "The ebb and flow of matchplay can be a beautiful thing, but it wears you out emotionally," said the 22-year-old. "We played very hard out there, but the important thing is that Mark is still my friend."

O'Meara had fired a warning with a spectacular semi-final victory over the holder, Vijay Singh, on Saturday, when the margin of 11 and 10 set a new tournament record. And it seemed richly ironic that he should have opened up a crushing, 10hole lead by lunchtime against an opponent who had shot a record-equalling 62 against Patrik Sjoland, 24 hours previously.

Meanwhile, Woods hinted broadly at being the victim of racist comments from the partisan, British crowd, after beating local favourite Lee Westwood 5 and 4 in the other semi-final. "I was shocked at some of the things said out there," he remarked. "They were personal, the sort of things you can't repeat." But looking towards the final, he added with relish: "Mark is like an older brother to me: it'll be a blast."

With a disparity of £80,000 between the reward for first place and runner-up, this was a far cry from the friendly, five-dollar matches they play regularly as members of the Isleworth club near Orlando. But then the final wasn't about money; it was about golfing pride for two gifted practitioners.

Though the quality of play was sustained at a remarkably high level, there were still times when the match seemed to be an unwelcome cosiness about it. Judging from O'Meara's reaction, afterwards, those appearances were deceptive.

"Believe me, it was pretty intense out there," said the older man. "Tiger didn't say very much and he was determined to give nothing away. Like at the 11th this morning when I could hardly believe he wanted me to putt a two-footer. And I told him so."

O'Meara added: "Tiger really wanted to win all right, but there was never any suggestion of gamesmanship from him."

The ebb and flow that Woods alluded to, saw him open up a four-hole lead after the first six holes of the morning, which he covered in four under par, before going into lunch three holes clear. O'Meara fought back however, to be square after the 24th.

He then provided rich evidence that his more powerful opponent might not have such a clear advantage on the three par-fives on the way home. It came at the 510yard 30th, where he had a wonderful eagle three, almost knocking out the flag with a two-iron second shot of 218 yards before the ball came to rest two feet from the hole.

Now, Woods was clearly beginning to feel the heat of battle. At the short 32nd, O'Meara hit a six iron to nine feet, whereas his young rival got to within four feet of the target with a seven iron. But when the nine-footer was holed for a birdie, Woods missed.

Still, there was plenty of fight left in the 22-year-old, who drew level yet again at the next, where O'Meara drove into trees. Both players later agreed, however, that the decisive moments of the match occurred on the fateful 34th.

At 380 yards, this is normally a simple three wood and wedge hole for competitors of their calibre. But O'Meara seemed to have effectively conceded it by blocking his tee-shot into trees on the right and then chasing a five-iron recovery into the front, right bunker.

From there, a decidedly moderate recovery came to rest 15 feet from the pin whereas Woods was only six feet away after following a two-iron with a comfortable wedge. But he was clearly stunned when his opponent holed his effort for a par. The tension showed in a poor birdie putt which raced four feet past the hole and even more so when Woods missed the return.

"Mark's putt there surprised me," Woods admitted afterwards. "I made two bad putts. That was a big moment." O'Meara said: "That part of the green is new and it clearly cost Tiger. Sure, that was a big break for me."

Making due allowances, however, the behaviour of the world number one on the 17th tee was not an edifying sight. From a onehanded finish to a ballooned three-wood tee-shot, he dropped the errant club to the ground and then kicked at it in anger. But he soon regained his composure sufficiently for an improbable half in birdie, by holing from 10 feet.

Down the last, Woods was once more at war with himself on the tee, though he blamed it on some injudicious photography. In the event, after O'Meara had pulled his driver into one of the strategically-placed bunkers left of the fairway, Woods made the unforgivable matchplay error of following his opponent into trouble, albeit into a trap further on.

Yet he still seemed likely to force the match into sudden death, just as he had done in a quarter-final meeting with Ian Woosnam on Friday. His eightfoot birdie putt on the final green, certainly looked a far more attractive proposition than O'Meara's, which was sitting against the second cut, 18 feet from the target.

With a putting stroke that had already delivered 22 tournament victories, however, O'Meara stroked the ball through a double break and with just enough pace, eased it into the hole. With that, he and his young rival smiled broadly and embraced each other: suddenly they were warm friends once more.

"I told Tiger I was sorry someone had to lose, but I was proud of the way I finished off the match," said O'Meara. His friend responded: "I'm very happy for Mark, who has not been getting enough credit for his achievements."

Then, by way of burying the hurt of Saturday, he concluded: "The crowd were awesome - great." But with a tissue at the ready, he couldn't resist adding: "I hope the weather's better when I come back."