Actually, the short-term benefits of the relationship have been in O'Meara's favor. In addition to forcing Woods to peel off a few bills after their friendly games, O'Meara nipped Woods in a stirring duel at Pebble Beach in 1997, negated Woods's birdie-birdie finish at the British Open this July, and in the 36-hole final of the World Match Play in October was a model of opportunism in beating Woods one up. The key moment came at the 34th hole, on which O'Meara scraped his ball onto the green in three, then holed a 10-footer for par. Woods, only 10 feet away from a birdie, three-putted. O'Meara closed out the match with a 15-footer for birdie from off the final green.
The one-sidedness of their confrontations has been enough to make some people wonder if O'Meara's friendship with Woods is a ruse to sap Tiger of his competitive strength. Woods laughs at such suggestions, pointing to the 18-inch putt he refused to concede to O'Meara in the Match Play final. O'Meara also scoffs at the theory. "I'm not that smart," he says. "When we play, I want to see his very best. It's absolutely awesome, and it makes me better."
Bottom line: Hanging with Woods has been another smart move by O'Meara. "To conjure up some way to stay with that kid's game every day, that's an immeasurable tool for your confidence," says Faldo. Adds Cook, "Mark has always been quietly confident, but I see this little bit of cockiness since he's been playing with Tiger." Higginbotham confirms that while his boss might lowball for public consumption, inside the ropes he talks tough. "After Mark birdied the 17th at Augusta to go eight under, we saw that [David] Duval had just finished with the same score. Mark looked at me and said, 'I think that's one short, bud.' Then at the British, we're walking down the final fairway before Mark has to hit a five-iron into the wind to a narrow green, and he's almost laughing, saying, 'I can't believe how calm I am.' That was beautiful."
O'Meara's lowball days are over, which will make it that much harder for him to remain a force next year. The kids he mastered this season are only getting better, which is something a 42-year-old at the top of his game seldom does. "Realistically, my plan is to wind down in about three years, a little like Bruce Lietzke," O'Meara says, only nobody's buying. If 1998 proved anything, it was that this guy never stops reaching.