At next week's PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Wash., Mark O'Meara has a chance to join Ben Hogan as the only man to win three pro majors in a year. That's a startling possibility, when you think about it. Besides Hogan, who hit the trifecta in 1953 after having won a pair of majors in '51, only seven other players have been in a similar position since the first Masters, in 1934. The roll call: Craig Wood ('41), Arnold Palmer ('60 and '62), Jack Nicklaus ('66 and '72), Lee Trevino ('71), Gary Player ('74), Tom Watson ('77 and '82) and Nick Faldo ('90). Here's something even more outrageous: Don't be surprised if O'Meara wins number three. He has made a career out of converting rare opportunities.
In any conversation about the majors, Hogan and O'Meara would juxtapose like Ruth and Maris. The heavy presence of Hogan always loomed over the Grand Slam events, while until this year, the maiors were an o'mission on O'Meara's record. Before April's Masters he had missed the cut in 18 of his 57 starts in majors and had only seven top 10 finishes. With his low ballflight and right-to-left game, O'Meara looked overmatched in the big championships, so much so that when he opened the 1997 season with the 13th and 14th wins of his 17-year career on Tour, I wrote in this space that no one should get too excited, and I labeled O'Meara the King of the B's.
I should've known better. O'Meara has proved to be the master of the eloquent rebuttal. First, he stole the show at Augusta with a surgical strike of three birdies in the final four holes, the last coming on a 20-foot putt that had opportunity written all over it. Then, at Royal Birkdale, O'Meara birdied four of the final eight holes of regulation to take the claret jug. In an instant he went from Marky Mark—Sweden's Jarmo Sandelin had accused O'Meara of improperly marking his ball at last year's Lanc�me Trophy—to Major Mark, at 41 the oldest player to win two Grand Slam events in a year.
This pattern of surprise and conquer began when O'Meara upset a highly touted John Cook in the final of the U.S. Amateur in 1979. When O'Meara and, by coincidence, Fred Couples made their pro debuts the following year in the Queen Mary Open, a regional event in Long Beach, Calif., no one noticed O'Meara. "With Freddie you could at least see something there," remembers Doug Ives, the tournament director. "With Mark, you couldn't see it at all."
But O'Meara could. He went on to earn his Tour card that fall and was the '81 rookie of the year. That didn't stop him, though, from overhauling his funky inside-and-over-the-top swing, turning it into a flatter move modeled after that of, yes, Hogan. In 1984 O'Meara won his first event, the Greater Milwaukee Open, and finished second on the money list.
From that point on, he would have you believe, everything has been frosting. O'Meara likes posing as the chubby guy who has done more than anyone thought possible. It's a shrewd guise that lowers expectations, and pressure, but behind that facade lurks a cocky defiance that surfaces at the hint of condescension. Last year at Pebble Beach, when O'Meara was asked what it was like to play with Tiger Woods, he replied, "Hey, I've won 12 times on the PGA Tour. Ask him what it's like to play with me." Then O'Meara went out and won the tournament (for the fifth time), blunting a furious charge by Woods with a back-atcha chip-in birdie. In the same way that O'Meara's second-story job at the Masters was a reaction to being cuffed around by the media for not winning a major, his British Open victory was the best response to Sandelin's aspersions.
O'Meara admits that he has been rejuvenated by his close relationship with Woods, drafting off the rush of the younger player's energy and ambition. If Tiger is destiny's child, he may look back on Iris Orlando neighbor as his best teacher. Woods's task is to get the most out of his talent. No one has done that better than O'Meara.
Bottom line: O'Meara's a special player who shouldn't be sold short. While hell never get more than B's for his physical skills—an assessment he acknowledges when he calls himself "a nice player, not a great one"—the internal O'Meara gets straight A's. His round edges might suggest a roll of Charmin, but inside he's steel. Until further notice, Mark O'Meara is golf's best finisher.