As the first event on the 1996 PGA Tour, last week's $1 million Mercedes Championships did a smashing job of fulfilling its mission as Update Central. All around the La Costa Resort and Spa the feelings of optimism and goodwill were so pervasive that nobody seemed to hold it against the winner, Mark O'Meara, that he wore a Toyota visor all week. Heck, that sort of ambush marketing happens all the time out there in the corporate world, and, besides, there were more important things to gossip about. Such as who came to La Costa with new equipment contracts, new attitudes and, most important, new playing itineraries. So much was new, in fact, that Lee Janzen, who was breaking in his fourth set of clubs since his victory in the 1993 U.S. Open, felt compelled to announce that "I've got the same sons, the same wife and the same caddie."
Until 1994, when Mercedes took over the tournament, the event was known as the Tournament of Champions, which was a perfectly good and fitting name for an exclusive field that's limited to the previous year's Tour winners and the British Open titleholder. Of the 32 players eligible for last week's gathering, only Ernie Els, who was resting in South Africa, and Peter Jacobsen, who's bothered by an aching back, failed to tee it up. So no wonder O'Meara, who was to celebrate his 39th birthday six days after the final round, seemed unusually exuberant about his three-shot victory over Scott Hoch and the formidable Nick Faldo.
"It's nice to get off to a good jump start," said O'Meara, whose 11 career victories include five in California, where he grew up, but no majors. "Who knows? Maybe this will be a big year for Mark O'Meara. Maybe this will be the year I win a major championship."
A win at La Costa makes a guy think like that, especially now that you can no longer come to the Tour's first event expecting to find a lot of out-of-shape guys who have been spending more time with their fishing rods than with their Callaways and Pings. It used to be that the players viewed a win at the Spa as nice, even rejuvenating—a way to get a leg up on the year. But a dull performance wasn't something to start windmilling putters over because, well, only guys like Palmer and Nicklaus could reasonably be expected to have their A games ready from the get-go. Heck, the tournament was known among the players as the Rust-Oleum Chip-Off Classic. But that's not the way it is anymore. Said O'Meara, "There's not as much of a rust factor. Guys play a lot more these days. When they get here, they're rarin' to go."
Last week nobody was more rarin' than O'Meara, who scorched the La Costa layout for rounds of 68-69-66-68, putting him 17 under for the week. He was in mid-season form, mainly because he's one of those players who find it hard to sit out November and December when there's so much easy loot available in off-season events around the world. So O'Meara didn't take a break until after the first week of December, when he returned from Buenos Aires and an unsuccessful defense of his Argentine Open title. Although he took the rest of the month off and spent two weeks skiing in Utah, the Tour was never far from his mind.
"I can't say I didn't touch a club for two weeks," O'Meara said. "I took a seven-iron with me and swung it a few times in the room."
Maybe Greg Norman should have tried that. For whatever reason, something was missing from his normally spectacular game until Sunday, when he fired a 29 on the front side and had seven straight birdies—one off the Tour record—in a round of 67. On Thursday afternoon Norman began 1996 with the first of three one-over 73s, and in the evening wrapped up 1995 by accepting the Player of the Year trophy at a banquet in the La Costa clubhouse. The award will get a special spot in Norman's overstocked trophy case because it came from his peers, some of whom have made it clear over the years that they think Norman gets far more publicity and adoration than his record merits.
Almost 41, Norman has so many irons in the fire (if not on fire, at least for the moment) that it must be wondered if he's spreading himself too thin, the way Palmer and Nicklaus did at the peak of their careers. When asked about it, Norman gave a cryptic answer. "I've set up a game plan through the year 2000," he said. "I'm focused very heavily on the next four years. If I satisfy my goals, I might take a hard look at whether I want to stop."
Disappointing as Norman's overall play was, it was by no means the worst of the tournament. John Daly, who was suffering from back problems and the flu, stumbled home dead last in the first round and, as they say in horse racing, failed to improve his position. The only record he threatened was the unofficial one for fast play. On Friday, Daly and playing partner Hal Sutton, the first twosome off the tee, were clocked in less than three hours.
That left plenty of time for the new postmatch autograph session. In response to players' complaints about being stalked everywhere by professional autograph collectors, the Tour has adopted a policy that calls for players to be available for signing only in designated, roped-off areas and only upon the completion of their rounds. At La Costa the policy passed its first test without incident, though it should be noted that the galleries were smaller and more polite than those at the typical Tour stop, that Craig Stadler was not in the small field and that nobody in the well-heeled crowd was gauche enough to bring up the Ryder Cup to Janzen or ask Faldo about his marital status.