Mark O'Meara turns back time
Former champ, at age 56, shows flashes of the game that won him the Claret Jug
GULLANE, Scotland -- Mark O'Meara has earned his day in the Open Championship sun and the platform to mock a younger generation moaning and groaning about this and that. The old man deserves his chance to be "the man" for once, and not just another semi-famous golfer lost in the shadow of bigger stars.
O'Meara is a two-time major winner who never commands the attention granted Hall of Fame contemporaries such as Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo or even Fred Couples, a one-time major winner who owns one fewer PGA Tour victory. O'Meara is a character actor sometimes confused with Mark McCumber, much in the way, say, Brian Dennehy is sometimes confused with Charles Durning.
He is known for his friendship with Tiger Woods more than his 16 tour titles. O'Meara even will go down among the unluckiest lucky guys at the Masters. He won the green jacket in 1998, but it's still a tournament most remembered for Jack Nicklaus' remarkable charge as a 58-year-old in dire need of a new hip.
Only nothing was going to steal O'Meara's moment Thursday at Muirfield, not a golf course unfit for a 56-year-old who hasn't finished in the top 50 of any Grand Slam event in eight years and not even Woods himself. As Tiger headed to the putting green to prepare for a later start, he winked at the familiar face standing on the 10th tee, a familiar face who proceeded to rip one down the middle.
O'Meara hadn't seen Woods since the Masters, and he wanted to make a point.
"When I can pipe my drive on 10 in front of him, that's a good feeling," O'Meara said. "He's probably thinking, 'Man, the old man is like 5-under after nine. How the hell is he doing that?'"
A good question during a first round that saw the treacherous, baked-out course inspire Phil Mickelson and Ian Poulter to rip the R&A; Poulter tweeted that the green on No. 8 was "a joke" and that the final hole "needs a windmill & clown face."
So yeah, how does a 56-year-old shoot 4-under 67 and land one shot behind leader Zach Johnson in mini-golf conditions like these?
"I didn't feel like I was 56 years old out there," O'Meara said. "I felt like I was 32."
Maybe he felt as young as 20-year-old playing partner Grant Forrest, the Scottish amateur champ who shot a respectable 73. Forrest said O'Meara "started talking to me as soon as we got off the first tee" in an effort to relax him, to take his mind off what the kid called a "daunting" debut.
O'Meara was too busy making Forrest comfortable to remind himself that he was a Champions Tour relic and that he was supposed to be feeling nothing but pain and misery for two days before missing the cut.
"I guess at this stage of the game he doesn't put a whole lot of pressure on himself," his wife, Meredith, said as she waited for her husband outside the clubhouse. "I believe in him. He's still an unbelievable player."
Meredith reported that O'Meara actually woke up with a headache, just not one that could stop him from shooting 31 on the front or from sinking a 35-foot eagle putt on the 17th. Just not one that could stop him from dreaming of a second Claret Jug to go with the one he claimed in a playoff victory over Brian Watts in 1998.
You know, the Open Championship better known for Woods finishing one birdie short of that playoff.
"Let me see that trophy," Tiger said to O'Meara as they flew back over the Atlantic.
"I know you came up one shot shy of being in the playoff," O'Meara said after removing the jug from his case, "but I will tell you, your name will be on that trophy more than one time."
In pursuit of Open Championship victory No. 4, Woods walked out of Muirfield on Thursday two shots behind O'Meara and three off the lead. Age and gravity suggest Tiger has a much better shot at a fourth jug than O'Meara has at a second.
The old man knows this. He said he is motivated by Tom Watson's brutal near-miss at Turnberry (at 59) and by Norman's performance at Birkdale (at 53) but conceded that he's a realist too.
"Do I think I can [win]?" he said. "When I play like I did today, yeah, I think I can."
No, he's not likely to play as he did Thursday. In fact, O'Meara sounded far more convincing when talking about the course conditions and how perfectly manageable he found them to be.
"I've seen the most horrendous conditions you can think about playing golf in out there," he said. "But today the wind really didn't blow that hard. ... Trust me, I've stood on holes where it's 200 yards or 212 and hit a driver and I could barely hold on to the club and it's freezing, raining and sleeting and cold and I can't put my umbrella up. To me, that's way more miserable than what we had out there."
As for the men 10 or 20 years younger who would argue his point, O'Meara delivered this public service announcement: "If they think that way, then they need to look at the old man and say, 'How did he do it that way?'"
O'Meara did it that way by using his vast links experience, by keeping the ball low, by sinking his makeable putts (plus a couple of unexpected ones) and by refusing to remind himself that he hasn't won anything against the regular Tour types since taking the Masters and Open in that stunning four-month span 15 years ago.
"Links golf," said David Leadbetter, one of golf's leading instructors, "is really the great equalizer. Age doesn't matter when the course is this firm."
So it didn't matter to O'Meara, who nearly holed a long putt at 18 for a share of the lead. He played in-his-prime golf then admitted he didn't have much use for competitors who waste time whining about pin placements and racetrack greens.
It was the old man's day from start to finish, and after all these years of being a supporting actor on someone else's stage, Mark O'Meara had surely earned it.
THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
The Open returns to Scotland and Muirfield for the first time since 2002. Who will hold the Claret Jug this time around?
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