In a wildly entertaining British Open that saw three breathtaking 72nd-hole finishes and a playoff, unflappable Mark O'Meara won his second major in three months
by John Garrity
Alcohol is not truth serum, but sometimes the wetted tongue speaks with refreshing candor. On Sunday, in the aftermath of Mark O'Meara's victory in the British Open, a man in a dark blazer came up behind Brian Watts, who an hour before had lost to O'Meara in a four-hole playoff and was now sitting on a couch in the almost-deserted hospitality tent. The man handed Watts a champagne glass and filled it halfway. Watts, a Diet Coke man, gave the glass a dubious look. But he took a sipcelebrating, no doubt, his imminent escape from golf exile.
The waiter carrying the tray of champagne flutes was already out of earshot. He had crossed the driveway and was passing out drinks to a thirsty and clamoring crowd. Why all the champagne? Because this was a major championship that had given many participantsand spectatorsreason to celebrate. Within an hour on Sunday, the Royal Birkdale Golf Club offered up no fewer than three 72nd-hole finishes as compelling as any in British Open history. Tiger Woods, a stroke off the lead, dropped a 30-foot birdie putt and arm-pumped his way across the 18th green. Seventeen-year-old Brit Justin Rose holed out a 45-yard pitch for birdie and tied for fourth, the best finish by an amateur since Frank Stranahan's second-place finish at Carnoustie in 1953. And Watts forced the playoff with one of the best long bunker shots ever made under pressure.
There were other developments last weekend that also merited a tip of the glass.
An ultraexclusive gated community in Florida found itself three fourths of the way to the Grand Slam. (O'Meara, who also won the Masters in April, and U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen are both residents of Isleworth in Orlando.)
For the second time this summer, the winner of a major had a lost ball reappear as he was walking back to hit another. (A spectator stumbled upon O'Meara's ball in the rough during the third round, saving him at least two strokes; Janzen hit a ball into a tree at San Francisco's Olympic Club in June but lucked out minutes later when it fell back to earth.)
For the second time this summer, a four-round total of even par took the prize at a major. (At the Olympic Club tight fairways and fast greens humbled the field; at Royal Birkdale, deep rough and wind did.)
Ah, yes, the conditions. The weather in the British Isles has been on the wet and windy side this year. England's northwest shore is so soggy that hedgerows are spilling onto pavements, and articles left outdoors overnight turn into Chia pets. The days leading up to the Open were notable for squalls that whistled through the flags at Royal Birkdale. The rough was so thick that Tom Lehman lost six balls in eight holes during a Monday practice round and so tall that you could almost hide a Texan in itspecifically the defending champion from Dallas, Justin Leonard, who finished 17 over par for the tournament.
Only on the opening day could the weather be called ideal, and the field celebrated with 27 subpar rounds, led by Woods and John Huston, who each shot 65. But the second round went to Royal Birkdale as morning rains soaked the course and afternoon winds raked it. Woods got around in 73 and O'Meara shot a splendid 68, but the day belonged to two golfers who had never been on a leader board at a major. The first was Rose, the rosy-cheeked boy from Hook, a town 40 miles southwest of London, who ditched school 18 months ago to play full-time amateur golf. He shot a 66 in Friday's gale, tying Stranahan (1950) and Woods (1996) for the lowest British Open round by an amateur. "My 66 was nowhere near as good," said Woods, "because mine was in calm weather."
The other interloper was Watts, a 32-year-old American who spends most of the year in Japanese hotel rooms, watching television and talking long distance to his wife, Debbye, who is raising their one-year-old son in Oklahoma City. This curious and unsatisfactory arrangement owes to Watts's success on the Japanese tour (he has won 11 tournaments and more than $4 million in five-plus years) and to his equally curious and unsatisfactory attempts to make it on the PGA Tour. (He finished 184th on the money list in 1991, his only year on that circuit.) Watts has been portrayed in the media (unfairly, according to his friends and family) as an ugly American who accumulates bags of yen while shunning Japanese food and culture. Watts says he eats whatever his hosts serve him"Except the raw fish. It's just a mental block," he saysand even loads up the rice cooker whenever he's in Oklahoma City.
With his welcome perhaps wearing out in Japan, Watts had to feel more pressure than the weekend's other contenders. Victory in the British Open carries a five-year exemption for the PGA Tour, and all prize money counts toward the Tour's money list. In effect Watts came to Royal Birkdale as a hostage attempting to raise his own ransom.
O'Meara, on the other hand, seemed as relaxed as a pensioner at tea. Before he won the Masters, he was just one of the test-pattern personalities who toil quietly on Tour and end up rich (14 tournament wins and $8.8 million in prize money over 17 years, in O'Meara's case). He didn't register with golf fans until he began exerting an avuncular influence on another of his Isleworth neighbors, Woods. The two holidayed together in Ireland the week before the Open, playing golf and fishing, and it was easy to think of the 41-year-old O'Meara just as Tiger's older, unthreatening friend.
In the end he got a huge break. Since the spectator, an "outside agency" under the rules, had picked up the ball, O'Meara was given a free drop near the point where his ball had been found. When two efforts to drop it on the steep slope did not produce a legal lie, he was told that he could place his ball in the rough. From that cushy lie, O'Meara pitched onto the green and two-putted for a five.
At the time O'Meara's hike through the hay suggested that he didn't think he could beat the elements. In retrospect it showed that he had the right temperament for Royal Birkdalea wry detachment that did not so much overcome setbacks as ignore them. On Sunday, in a wind that made the pin flags merely flap instead of stiffen, O'Meara rode like a leaf on the tide of dramatic surges. Ahead of him Woods, who at 22 was scrapping for his second major championship, chipped in for birdie on 17 and thrilled the grandstands on 18 with the long putt that momentarily tied him for the lead. Rose then goosed the crowd with his pitch-in from the tall grass, his last shot as an amateur. (Rose's total of 282 tied him for fourth with Jim Furyk, Jesper Parnevik and Raymond Russell, and led him to announce that he was turning pro.)
In the end, though, it was O'Meara and Wattsthe man without a care versus the man without a country. Both birdied the 17th and parred the 18th, although Watts hit the shot we'll remember, a long greenside bunker blast from an awkward lie that came out low and rolled to tap-in range. The two men then were taken to the 15th tee to start the four-hole, stroke-play playoff unique to the Open. Watts blinked first, missing a short birdie putt on 15. He squandered another stroke when he drove into a wall of grass on 17. In the 18th fairway, with sunlight squeezing through a crack in the clouds, O'Meara turned to Higginbotham and said, "I have never been this calm. I can't believe how calm I am." He then smacked a four-iron to the back edge of the green. Two putts later, he was the oldest player in modern times to win two majors in the same year.
Outside, a throng of well-wishers surrounded O'Meara in the driveway next to the clubhouse while his wife, Alicia, watched happily and sipped champagne. "Mark didn't have anything to prove," she said. "This is just something nice that happened to us." Higginbotham, enjoying the momentand his lagersaid, "He's got to get his due now. If he never makes another penny in golf, Mark O'Meara is in the history books."
The funny thing was, the one guy without a glass in his hand was the winner. He just stood there with a contented smile on his face, clutching an old claret jug.
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