Off the course, O'Meara battles against life's getting him one down. He is frugal and stays at budget motels, eats breakfast at McDonald's and flies commercial. He's compulsively neat about his clothes, his house and particularly his cars. (O'Meara set up an elaborate washing station in his garage, complete with drainage grate, special hose nozzles and cupboards full of clean towels.) When O'Meara takes Michelle and Shaun to the nearby Epcot Center, he studies "how those Disney gardeners make their plants look so good. I love that precision."
O'Meara does not waste opportunities. He makes a point of engaging his pro-am partners—particularly business executives—in conversations designed to broaden his horizons, and the pleasant chemistry he creates has no doubt played a role in his winning six Tour events (five at Pebble Beach) in which pros play alongside amateurs for at least 54 holes. O'Meara's ability to ingratiate himself causes cynics to call him an operator. His rap is easy to parody, and his close relationship with Woods has raised suspicions of ulterior motives. (Some say O'Meara was invited to play in the Skins Game for the first time, in 1997, only because he is a Tiger Buddy.) Even Alicia says she regarded O'Meara suspiciously when they first met, in 1978, when he was a junior at Long Beach State and she was a senior at Dana Hills High. "He was just so nice" she says. "Almost too nice. I was thinking, This guy is kind of slick." On the other hand, there has been nothing oily about O'Meara's generous support of his former caddie, Donny Wanstall, who contracted multiple sclerosis in 1994. "Success has never changed Mark," says Wanstall, who works for a golf-cart company in Jacksonville. "He has always been a good man."
When it comes to business, O'Meara can be tough and demanding. A few years ago he had Hughes Norton replaced as his agent at International Management Group because he felt Norton had pursued a contract with Rogaine too aggressively. The stuff had worked on O'Meara's balding pate, but the narcissistic implications made him uncomfortable. "I mean, who am I trying to kid?" says O'Meara, who no longer uses the solution. "That wasn't me." When Woods was questioning his relationship with Norton earlier this year, he asked O'Meara for advice. Soon after, Woods also dismissed Norton, who then became angry at O'Meara. "All I told Tiger was the truth about my own experience," says O'Meara. "I didn't submarine Hughes. What happened to Hughes, he did to himself." In recent weeks O'Meara threatened to leave IMG entirely unless the agency sweetened his deal. Although neither side is talking, O'Meara is staying, with a smile on his face.
The third of five children, O'Meara is a middle child who developed independence and common sense early on. "Mark always had a handle on things," says 69-year-old Bob O'Meara. He and Mark's mother, Nelda, live a few blocks from their son at Isleworth. A Depression-era baby from New York City, Bob still maintains an office and works five days most weeks as a furniture wholesaler. He has never tired of the art of the close. "We always lived in nice houses, always a little bit above our means," says Mark. "My dad forced himself to perform. The fear of failure was always in the air in our family, I believe in a good way. I've never lost that feeling." Says Bob O'Meara, "I believe in always reaching. Mark has that in his blood, too."
O'Meara reached out to golf. "I was always the new kid in school," he says, "so basically golf became my companion." He demonstrated an early knack and was soon winning junior tournaments, mostly with a good short game and excellent course management. He was no world-beater in his first two years at Long Beach State, but his performance improved immediately after he met Alicia. "I eagled the first hole she ever watched me play," O'Meara says. "I knew I'd met the right person, and it made a big difference." In the first summer they dated, O'Meara won the California State Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and the Mexican Amateur. Ever the pragmatist, he resisted turning pro until the next year, after he had obtained his degree in marketing. "At that point I had no real idea if I could make it on Tour or not," he says.
O'Meara rose to the occasion and got through Q school on his first try, then had solid finishes on the West Coast and Florida swings. But even after O'Meara had toughed out the difficult transition to his new swing, his calling card was consistency more than brilliance. He has never been a long hitter or even a particularly straight driver, but his distance control, his textbook putting stroke and his headiness have kept him among the top 30 money winners every year since 1984, except for 1993 and '94, when he temporarily suffered from burnout.
O'Meara's most valuable competitive gift is that, like his father, he's a closer. O'Meara tied for eighth in the '84 Buick Open—the first time he had held a third-round lead in a Tour event—but since then has won nine of the next 14 tournaments in which he led or shared the lead after 54 holes. His conversion rate of more than 64% far exceeds the Tour average (about 30%). Jack Nicklaus, the finest closer of the modern era, won two out of three times (24 of 36) when he led after 54 holes. Among active players who came into this year with 13 or more victories, the only two who approach that ratio are O'Meara and Lanny Wadkins (62%). "Mark gets nervous, but he ain't scared," says his caddie, Jerry Higginbotham. "It's more common than you think on Tour to see guys, top players, get in the heat and have their hands shaking so bad they can barely get the ball on the tee. When I hand Mark his ball, his hands don't shake." Says O'Meara, "I take pride in being able to get it done when I need to."
Still, he seemed overmatched in the firm conditions of the majors, in which he had only seven top 10 finishes coming into this year. Haney believes he knows what held his pupil back. "Once Mark became dedicated to improving his swing, he became a closet perfectionist," he says. "I believe Mark underachieved, and especially in majors, because he wouldn't give himself permission to win unless he was happy with his mechanics and his ball striking. When he was satisfied and confident, he would get in the hunt and win, but that perfectionist attitude killed him in majors because the courses are so demanding, they made him try too hard. Finally he has learned that just being Mark O'Meara is good enough."
The key to that realization has been Woods. In 1996, when a 20-year-old Woods moved to within a three-wood shot of O'Meara at Isleworth, the two became friends. On the course, on the practice tee that lies 40 paces from the O'Meara house or at the O'Meara kitchen counter, the inquisitive and analytical Woods has peppered the older man with questions. "Mark thinks playing a role in helping Tiger reach his potential is a way of giving back to golf," says Alicia. "Of course, there's no question being around Tiger has energized Mark."
Woods calls O'Meara "a true friend. I can ask him anything and get an honest answer." Their age difference is irrelevant, Woods says, because "basically we relate to each other as two warriors. I love that Mark is so competitive. It's amazing the ways he has found to beat me. Sometimes it drives me crazy, but he's taught me a lot about the game."