The 1998 season was full of surprises. Who would have predicted that a couple of minors, Matt Kuchar and Justin Rose, would become the talk of the majors, or that one of the PGA Tour's most respected couples, Tom and Linda Watson, would become the talk of the locker room? The biggest surprise of all, though, was the one pulled off by Mark O'Meara, who transformed himself from a nice player (his words) into a force.
A nice player is one who has won as often as O'Meara (16 times on Tour) over a long career (he was rookie of the year in 1981). A force is a player the rest of the field watches with its collective third eye every time he tees it up. A force doesn't simply survive, winning majors that others lose by making mistakes; he closes the deal by executing winning shots. This year O'Meara became the sport's Mr. Clutch, everyone's choice to make the proverbial six-foot putt for your life. Even his peers, who have long held his game in high regard, wonder exactly how the graying O'Meara shifted into this extra gear. If anything, he had always appeared to be one of those fortunate players who optimized his abilities—an overachiever. But by the end of the year, the player who had seemingly lacked the necessary weaponry to contend in majors had won the Masters and the British Open, just missed winning the PGA and was named the player of the year by the PGA of America and the Tour. The question remains: How did he do it?
It didn't happen all at once, nor did it happen for only one reason, although a not-bad shorthand answer is Tiger Woods. Like most breakout seasons 20 years in the making, O'Meara's '98 campaign was the result of a gradual accumulation of skill and wisdom that subtly and suddenly merged.
In retrospect O'Meara's journey began when he met golf's ultimate searcher, Ben Hogan. Hogan, who had a soft spot for dogs and promising young golfers, was intrigued with O'Meara after learning that he had played Hogan clubs while winning the 1979 U.S. Amateur. The next year O'Meara signed his first endorsement deal in Hogan's Fort Worth office. "After Mr. Hogan asked me about myself, I got the courage to ask him about his days starting out," O'Meara says. "He said, 'Mark, I taught myself piece by piece. I'd go to bed and think about some part of my swing and get up in the middle of the night to check it in the mirror. The next day, I'd try it on the practice tee. If it worked, I'd keep it. If it didn't, I'd get rid of it. It took me awhile, but I got hold of what was right for me.' I've never forgotten that conversation. Ever since, I've tried to keep gnawing away, one piece at a time."
Same as Hogan in his epic 1953 season, when he won three majors, O'Meara reached his pinnacle when he was 41. O'Meara's performance may not have inspired a ticker-tape parade up Broadway, as did Hogan's, but it validated the contention of his longtime teacher, Hank Haney, that "no one has kept improving longer than Mark."
Although he won't admit it—"be humble, be thankful and don't get caught up in expectations" is the mantra he tries to live by—O'Meara has always aspired to be a great player. "I knew he was capable of it," says his wife of 18 years, Alicia, who rode shotgun in a VW Rabbit filled to the brim with clothes and clubs when her husband began his pro career in 1980. "Deep down I think Mark did, too. But he wouldn't even tell me. In golf, some things you don't talk about."
O'Meara is tough to crack. He fools a lot of people because he seems so comfortable, so accessible and, to use his own description, so normal. He signs every autograph, makes a point of saying thank you to tournament volunteers and sponsors, and never blows up on the course. O'Meara's affable manner developed in part because he was forced to make new friends every time his father, Bob, a furniture salesman, moved the family, which happened seven times before O'Meara was a teenager.
Despite being a solid six feet and 180 pounds, O'Meara looks cherubic, and the word round best describes much about him, from his shoulders, slight paunch and moon-shaped face, to the initial of his last name and the way his expansive but safe answers to questions can make an interviewer feel as if he's just gone 0-fer. O'Meara even made sure that the interior walls of his custom-built, $3 million house in the exclusive Isleworth compound in Orlando have rounded corners. "That's Mark," says Alicia. "No hard edges."
O'Meara might look huggable, but it's a cover-up. Inside he's a churning ball of energy. The fact is that he's all about edge. For example, take the first thing he likes to tell a questioner: "I never expected to be this good." That's partly true, for O'Meara's modest golfing origins in the cart barn at Mission Viejo, Calif., put him far behind other 14-year-olds. But the statement is also an obfuscation, a manufactured inferiority complex, because O'Meara loves to lowball. By pretending that everything since his first Tour victory in 1984 has been gravy, he avoids the expectations that have weighed so heavily on guys like Nicklaus, Norman and Woods. That has allowed O'Meara the kind of psychological free run that he used to his advantage in April at Augusta, where the focus was on Fred Couples until O'Meara took the lead for the first time with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. Lowball was also his instinctive approach to his match against a highly favored John Cook in the final of the '79 Amateur, which O'Meara won 8 and 7, and it's a tactic he has used to stake out the nothing-to-lose territory when playing against Woods, whom he has gotten the best of in practice and in tournaments. O'Meara probably learned the art of the underdog from the master, Lee Trevino, who is godfather to O'Meara's nine-year-old son, Shaun. The little old ladies who think Mark O'Meara is such a nice young man eat up the act. The pros who play against him roll their eyes at the mention of the humble cart boy from Mission Viejo.
O'Meara reveals himself in other ways, too. Although it has never been part of his image, his work ethic is as intense as that of Nick Faldo, who has gotten a lot of mileage out of his practice habits. In the early '80s, when O'Meara was altering his swing from a self-taught, upright slash to a more rounded, flatter action, he beat as many balls as anyone on Tour, often at Pinehurst's Maniac Hill practice range, where he first worked with Haney. "In my opinion, no top player has ever successfully made as dramatic a swing change," says Haney. Adds Alicia, "I tell our kids [the O'Mearas also have a daughter, Michelle, 11, as well as Shaun] that if they work as hard as their father, I will never worry about them."