Mark O’Meara carved out a career-defining season in 1998 when he posted a rare double, winning both the Masters and the British Open.
This week, O’Meara returns to Royal Birkdale Golf Club, where he won the Claret Jug 15 years ago. A lot has changed since then but some things never change. The constant is easy for O’Meara to identify.
“Well, I have the burning desire to play well,” O’Meara said last week at Muirfield Golf Club. “I still want to win as badly as when I was 28. I’m 56 now and I feel like I hit it as good as I did when I was winning major championships in 1998. That’s what makes golf so special – that at 56 years you can still be competing.
“In ’98, I was 41. I wasn't hitting the ball well. A lot of my friends and media people know that. And my expectations were low. So sometimes when your expectations are a little lower, it's a little easier to perform because most people didn't expect Mark O'Meara to win the Masters necessarily at 41, including myself.”
But O’Meara certainly is optimistic of playing well this week at the Senior British Open on a Royal Birkdale course he knows well. He’s coming off a solid performance at Muirfield, where he tied for 58th after an outstanding opening round of 67 that made everybody take notice.
Those who didn’t expect a lot out of O’Meara at Royal Birkdale in 1998 were in for a surprise. But O’Meara had some key factors going for him. He’d been close before at The Open Championship. O’Meara tied for third in both 1985 at Royal St. Georges, where Sandy Lyle won, and 1991 at Royal Birkdale.
“I certainly had a chance in '91, playing with Ian Baker-Finch,” said O’Meara, who was tied for the lead after three rounds. “And the fact that throughout my career I tended to be a low-ball hitter and (had) success in windy and tougher conditions. So I always felt if I was going to play well, it would certainly be in The Open Championship.”
O’Meara said he was motivated last week at Muirfield by memories of Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009 and Greg Norman at Royal Birkdale in 2008, two of the game’s greats who almost pulled off unlikely victories at The Open Championship. O’Meara’s first-round 67 fueled his expectations.
“I didn't feel like I was 56 years old out there,” O’Meara said. “I felt like I was 32. I'm not saying that one round makes a tournament, because it doesn't. I've done this many times. I've been here. But it's nice to have played well.
“To me I've been playing pretty well over the last couple of years. I know I was hurt last year for about four months. But there are times the way I play and (the way) I strike the ball I feel like I actually am a better player now than I was maybe 15 years ago. I understand I'm not a spring chicken or I may not putt as good or chip as good or whatever, but the quality of shots that I hit out there (Thursday at Muirfield) I would say, ‘Hey, that's as good as I played when I was in my prime.’”
O’Meara said links golf, more than any other, allows creativity and experience to surface.
“That's what I think makes links golf so much more enjoyable and so much more what the game of golf should be played like,” he said. “And that's why I've always had a passion of playing in The Open Championship.”
O’Meara has eagerly anticipated this week’s Senior British.
“I know I haven't won a lot in the last 10, 11 years of my career, but I've been close a lot,” he said. “And I know that sometimes if you just keep getting close, sooner or later they're going to open the door.”
O’Meara has won only twice on the Champions Tour, both victories coming in 2010. He has 12 runner-up finishes, including four each in 2007 and 2009. His 2012 season was interrupted when he suffered torn cartilage in his rib area while preparing for the Masters. The injury sidelined him for four months and he made just 11 starts. But when he returned he had a stretch of five straight top 10 finishes, including a runner-up at the Boeing Classic.
O’Meara won the Claret Jug in a playoff against Brian Watts in 1998.
“I have great memories of Birkdale,” O’Meara said. “It is a great golf course. It is a demanding golf course, but yet straight forward in front of you. I know there are a couple of changes, but overall it is my favorite links course because of all the fond memories I have there.
“The thing that makes Birkdale unique is that there aren’t a lot of blind shots. You can see a lot of what is going on in front of you. Your tee shot on nine is kind of blind, but other than that it is a very straight forward golf course. On 16 you can’t see the fairway off the tee, but every other hole it is right in front of you, and I like that.”