The Chubby guy did it again. This time it happened at the Wentworth Club in posh Virginia Water, England, just south of London in die first all-American final of the World Match Play Championship since Hale Irwin beat Al Geiberger in 1975. For the umpteenth time since Tiger Woods moved in near Mark O'Meara's place in Isleworth, a gated, guarded, garish enclave in Orlando, the wise old pro got the better of his talented young neighbor.
O'Meara had already outdueled Woods at the 1997 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and in this year's British Open at Royal Birkdale. Now, as they got ready for Sunday's 36-hole final at Wentworth, Woods had to be thinking of Isleworth, where he and O'Meara gird themselves in Bermuda shorts and wage one-on-one battles that keep them sharp for the Tour wars. Woods may be the most gifted golfer on Earth, but those informal matches often end with the stronger player pulling out his wallet and wailing, "How do you always beat me?"
Woods had been hacking his way around England since his plane landed two weeks earlier. First, John Daly had a better record in the Dunhill Cup in St Andrews, where Woods, coughing and spitting with the flu, missed a four-foot putt on the final hole to lose to Santiago Luna of Spain in the semifinals, knocking the U.S. trio of Daly, O'Meara and Woods out of the tournament. At Wentworth, Woods was stunned to be heckled in what he called "shocking, personal" terms by British galleries. Trouble seems to follow Woods like the security guards who dog his steps these days. He recently dumped his agent, Hughes Norton of IMG, the man Woods used to call his "ambassador of Quan." Norton, who has known Woods since the latter was 14 and had arranged more than $120 million in endorsements for him, became expendable when Woods, after a talk with another IMG client, O'Meara, decided that Norton was burdening him with too many commitments.
"Hughes failed to understand Tiger's personal growth," said Earl Woods, Tiger's father. "For Hughes the dollar is almighty. For Tiger, money is not important." Alastair Johnston, head of IMG's golf division, will temporarily handle Woods's business affairs. "I think we'll see a new Tiger," Earl Woods said.
First, though, we saw some other familiar faces. There was the pink mug of Colin Montgomerie, who of course found something to go off on. Montgomerie, seeded fifth in the 12-man World Match Play, griped that he wasn't getting a first-round bye like O'Meara, Woods, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. "A bye means a lot in this event," said Monty, who proved it by going bye-bye when he dropped nine of the last 13 holes of a quarterfinal loss to O'Meara. PGA winner Singh, the defending champ, rolled to an 11-up lead on Patrik Sj�land of Sweden after only 21 holes. Singh coasted to a 7-and-6 victory and said, "I have a good chance of going all the way." In Saturday's semis, however, O'Meara made nine birdies before lunch and erased Singh in record fashion, 11 and 10.
After weathering a 37-hole win over Ian Woosnam and whipping Lee Westwood 5 and 4 to win the W bracket, Woods seemed poised to reassert himself as No. 1 in reality as well as in die World Ranking. On Sunday morning he grabbed a quick 3-up lead on O'Meara. Woods looked fierce, not neighborly. At the 11th hole he refused to concede an 18-inch putt. "I'll remember that," said a smiling O'Meara, who drew cheers from the crowd by making a show of measuring the gimme with the shaft of his putter. Still, most of those cheering O'Mearans probably thought Tiger would feast by sundown. You can't see the two of them together without thinking that the older man looks like Woods's accountant, and O'Meara knows it. This year's Masters and British Open champ never forgets that for all his achievements, he still isn't a superstar. If he needed a reminder, he got it on Sunday at lunch. "I was 3 down after the first 18," he said. "I came into the clubhouse and heard somebody say, ' Tiger Woods has a large lead.' I thought, No, that's not a large lead. I can go out there and turn the tide."
O'Meara birdied four of the first seven holes of the second 18, and on the par-5 12th, Woods, now leading by only one, wrapped his arms around his neighbor and said, "Whether I win or you win, I want to tell you it's been a heck of a match. I'm proud to be playing against you, and with you." O'Meara responded by rifling a two-iron that hit the flagstick and almost dropped into the hole for a double eagle. He settled for a tap-in eagle to even the match.
With three holes left, O'Meara drove into a grove at the par-4 16th. His half-swing punch shot from the trees found a greenside bunker. Now Woods, lying 2, stood over a 10-footer for birdie while O'Meara, also lying 2, studied his lie in the trap. The next few minutes were the season in microcosm. O'Meara blasted to about 10 feet and rolled in his par-saving putt. Woods, needing his putt to win the hole, went at it too hard. The ball slipped four feet past. "I'd have liked to give him that one," O'Meara said, "because he's my friend. But I know damn well he'd make me putt it."
Just as he did at St. Andrews, and just as he has done repeatedly during a year that featured several hideous four-putts, Woods missed the four-footer. "Pushed it," he said later. One down at the final hole, Woods was looking over yet another 10-foot putt for birdie. That's when O'Meara knocked in a 15-footer from the fringe to win the title, $290,000 and another hug from die second-best player at Isleworth.
Woods was a good loser. Match play was "exciting," he said. "It wears you out emotionally, but the ebb and flow is tremendous—a special thing that can only happen when you play 36." Of O'Meara, he said, "Mark hasn't gotten credit for being as good as he is. He's a great player, and now he's getting his due."