Mark O'Meara: "I wanted to be captain in 2006"

Golf News

The two-time Major champion on his friendship with Tiger, missing out on the Ryder Cup captaincy and overcoming the yips

IN January 1998 Mark O’Meara turned 41 and began an 18th successive season on the PGA Tour. 

In that time the former US Amateur champion (he beat John Cook in the 1979 final) had carved out an impressive career with 14 victories which included a remarkable five in the Pro-Am at Pebble Beach.

Always known for his easy-going demeanour and smooth, repetitive swing he was now being talked about as much for his friendship with the new big kid on the block, Tiger Woods.

The youngster’s first three Ryder Cup outings were alongside O’Meara at Valderrama and the pair would share practice rounds in all the big tournaments. 

And then, in his 59th Major, he won the Masters and, three months later, captured the Open Championship, overtaking his young friend for the time being and joining the likes of Greg Norman, Bernhard Langer and Johnny Miller.

How did your friendship with Tiger come about? 
I met him when he was 16 at the US Junior at Bay Hill and we played together the following year at Isleworth with his father and a friend of mine. We had a nice day so exchanged numbers, stayed in touch and I watched him a little bit more in his amateur and college days. His manager was my manager at the time and I was asked to show him the ropes and that’s what I did.

How well do we know the real Tiger?
He doesn’t vary with the public and gives the same response all the time but I see a different side, there is a funny side and he loves a practical joke. He really cares about his friends and is a good person, up close you get to see a very human side to him.

How would you compare Rory to Tiger at an early age?
I played the first two rounds with Rory in Dubai when he won in 2009 and I thought that at 19, although he didn’t have the record of Tiger at that age, his swing was technically as good as Tiger and the future was going to be very bright. Having a good family and base around him helps too and to dominate the US Open was very impressive.

Going into 1998 did you feel like you had gone up a level?
No, I had no idea. I was 41 and I didn’t feel great about my game going to Augusta and wasn’t hitting it great or putting very well. My relationship being around Tiger certainly helped but the big thing was that I thought that time had passed me by and I got out of my own way and lowered my expectations. I didn’t expect to win, certainly nobody else expected me to win, and then I won. And sometimes that happens.

What is it like coming down the stretch at Augusta being right in contention?
I was very proud of the way I performed down the stretch. I was very nervous but I birdied 15 and hit a great shot into 16. I hit a great putt which went right over the edge and I remember saying to my caddie Jerry Higginbotham ‘let’s birdie the last two holes’.
I normally wouldn’t say that sort of thing. I’m not sure I even believed it but I said it and hit a beautiful 9 iron over the pin at 17. I was pretty calm over the putt and hit the fairway on the last and a   7 iron in. It was a bit thin but not bad and skipped on to the right level – a yard shorter and it might have come back off the front of the green.
I made the putt from 18 feet and it was such a great moment, you always want to win a tournament of that magnitude by doing something good and not by somebody else messing up.

How would you compare that to the climax of the Open Championship?
Drawing on the experience of Augusta and having a Major win certainly helped but it didn’t ease the nervousness or passion for winning the Open Championship. To me it’s the greatest championship and that’s not being disrespectful to the US Open or even the Masters. It is hard to pick between the Open Championship and the Masters but if I had to take one it would be the Open.
Tiger really cares about his friends and is a good person, up close you get to see a very human side to him. How easy is it to adjust to being a Major winner and all that goes with that?
You have a little bit of time to reflect on what’s gone on but you draw a lot more attention to yourself and other people’s and your expectations go up. And that can hurt you. What Tiger did in his stretch was very impressive.

Unlike some of your countrymen you always came over for The Open.
I love links golf. It is much more creative and it is the Open Championship of the world. I tend to be more of a low ball player so it suits me and I like playing in the wind. I enjoy watching Darren Clarke hitting the little knock-down shots and controlling the ball.
Coming down the stretch at Birkdale I drew on previous experiences, I won the Lawrence Batley Invitational there in 1987, did well in the English Open and was tied for the lead with Ian Baker-Finch in the Open in 1991 – he went on to win and I was tied third. I have so many memories of Birkdale, it is like going back to Pebble Beach where I have won five times.

Can you still be competitive like Tom Watson?
You watch Tom Watson and it really motivates you but he is just an amazingly talented player. I think I can play well but do I think I can contend again? Then maybe not.
At 61, the way Tom compresses the ball like he does is incredible. You’ve got to have a real mental fortitude to win the Open and sometimes you don’t get the best breaks.
It would have been one of the best stories ever in sport. Some people said it would be bad for the game to have someone win at 61, I don’t agree with that. I played with him in his prime and he strikes the ball as well, if not better, these days.

Is there any reason why you haven’t been a Ryder Cup captain?
Do I think I have the record to be a captain? I think I could have been but the PGA of America didn’t select me. I don’t know why that is as guys with lesser records were made captain. Maybe they didn’t think I was capable or doing the right thing, I don’t know. It is a little disappointing, I wanted the job at the K Club, and they knew that, but they gave it to Tom Lehman. Looking back it didn’t turn out too bad for me as I was steelhead-fishing up at British Columbia and the American team got the worst beating ever. I don’t see it happening now.

If you were offered an assistant role would you take it?
I don’t think so, not at this stage of my life.

How would you view your own playing record?
It wasn’t that strong. I felt the most pressure there than anything I’ve ever done in golf. You feel like you’re letting down your team-mates and your country if you don’t play well and I was always a bit more on edge.

You are now involved in course design. How do you like the set-ups of today’s Majors?
I think Mike Davis of the USGA is a very smart man, I thought they did a great job at Torrey Pines and I hear they did a good job at Congressional. I don’t like it if you miss a fairway by two inches you have to chip out sideways, why not penalise more a guy who misses by five yards.
Likewise Billy Payne, he is a smart man and a wonderful guy who cares very deeply for the Masters. He is doing the right thing, realises that the roars have gone by the wayside a little bit and he wants to bring them back.

How did you arrive at your ‘saw grip’?
In 1998, even when I won the Masters, I had a little bit of a yip in my stroke in my right hand. In 2009 I was struggling pretty badly on the greens and didn’t feel comfortable and Hank Haney came in and said ‘you’ve got the yips’. I said ‘yeah, I know’. He moved my hands on the grip and I said it looked pretty ugly, he said who cares and was I still yipping it? I wasn’t so I started using it. I’ve putted alright, not great but I have stopped yipping them.

Will you ever use a long putter? 
I’m not a big fan, I think the USGA missed the boat by not stopping players anchoring the putter to their bodies. I wouldn’t say I would never do it but I have tried it in the past and didn’t feel comfortable doing it. It is almost like a teaching aid.

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