My life in golf by 1998 Masters champion Mark O’Meara
April 10, 2020
By Mark O'Meara, Special to PGATOUR.COM
- April 10, 2020
- Mark O'Meara won the 1998 Masters by one stroke over Fred Couples. (Andrew Redington/Allsport)
Editor’s note: Mark Francis O’Meara was born on Jan. 13, 1957, in Goldbsoro, North Carolina. He took up golf in earnest in his teens when his family relocated to California. He was an All-American at Long Beach State, and he won the U.S. Amateur after his senior year in 1979. He turned pro in 1980 and went on to claim 16 PGA TOUR wins, including the Masters and The Open Championship in 1998. O’Meara was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2015.
I grew up all across the country. I was born in North Carolina and by the time I was 13, I'd lived in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where I was born, and then I was in Marion, Ohio; Birmingham, Michigan; Long Island, New York; Dallas, Texas; Tustin, California; Wheaton, Illinois, back to Mission Viejo, California.
My dad was in the furniture business and (had) new jobs all the time. And my mom and dad were both New Yorkers. The first time I was exposed to golf was when I guess I would have been about 9. We moved and I was above Northwood, which is an old private golf club in Dallas. We lived off the sixth hole, but I didn't play. My mom and dad had clubs, but I didn't play. I just remember hunting balls on the golf course there in the creeks and stuff like that.
I played different sports, but I really didn't start playing golf until we came back to California in 1969, when I was 13. We moved into Mission Viejo, above the golf course there, Mission Viejo Country Club, near the 13th and 14th holes. And for some reason, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact I moved around so much as a young person, it was hard to make friends and for some reason I just took my mom's clubs out of the garage and went down to the golf course and took it up on my own.
I played on the golf team at Mission Viejo High School. So I would say I started to feel better about my game within a couple of years, by the time I was 15 I'd won a junior golf tournament. So I improved pretty quickly, I guess.
The greatest thing about golf for me at that stage, which I didn't understand at the time, but golf became my friend. When you're bouncing around so much, it's hard to make friends. A golf course is not a bad place to be and to hang out because it takes time. It teaches you so much about every aspect of life, good qualities to have. And so luckily for me my neighbor played a little bit and he was a year older than I was. And we developed a bond and played together on the high school golf team. And even though my father played, my mom and dad didn’t necessarily ever really set me up for group lessons or a teaching pro. I never really had any lessons.
As far as being recruited to play golf in college, I got a letter from Dave Williams. He was the coach at the University of Houston, and they were a powerhouse at the time. And then I was recruited by UCLA. Eddie Merrins, the golf pro at Bel-Air, was going to be the new head coach. They were just starting up a golf program.
I chose Long Beach State for a couple of reasons. Number one, I went there because I knew that I could stay at home and commute, and I was scared to leave home. And the second reason was I loved the golf coach. His name was Don Reed. He's no longer alive. But also, from the standpoint I felt like I could get through school academically and get my degree. And still play on a golf team. I felt like if I went to UCLA, I told my father, I was going to have to study so hard that I wouldn't be able to work on my golf game.
In fairness, my father, I think, was disappointed that I didn't go to UCLA. UCLA obviously is a great school. But Long Beach State turned out for me to be the right call just from the standpoint that I knew I was going to play in my first year. I was going to make the team and not have to sit on the bench. And the fact that, like I said earlier, I could commute. And so I still stayed in Mission Viejo in my mom and dad's condo. They moved back to Wisconsin. But they'd kept the condo up above the golf course there. I felt more comfortable being closer to where I had grown up and commuting to school than I would have been going away and being in a dorm or this and that. I knew also I could get through school and get my degree.
I had improved in each year in college at Long Beach State. My senior year was 1979, and I'd won the California State Amateur at Pebble Beach that summer. And then I went on to win the U.S. Amateur, the Mexican Amateur, the Southwestern Amateur. So I had a really good summer. But I still needed to go back to school. I stayed amateur in '80 because I needed to go back and finish to get my degree in business administration and marketing. Also because I got to play in the Masters and the U.S. Open. And to be fair, I didn't play well. I think I shot 80-81 at Augusta. I shot two 79s at the U.S. Open and missed the cut in both of those. But I made the cut at the Byron Nelson in Dallas. And I remember after I made the cut, I went over to look at the board after I'd finished 72 holes and I think at the time I realized that I had tied Jack Nicklaus. I grew up idolizing Jack. He was the greatest. And I thought you know what? If I can tie Jack Nicklaus, maybe, just maybe, I could turn pro and think about making a living at playing professional golf.
I turned pro in the fall of '80 after I got beat by Willie Wood at a country club in North Carolina defending my U.S. Amateur championship. I flew to Dallas and I turned pro the next day in Mr. Hogan's office, sitting across from the great Ben Hogan.
That had been arranged by a friend of a friend in Dallas. I played all Hogan Equipment. I was a Hogan guy. So it was unbelievable. It was a great experience for me, to walk into the office and meet Mr. Hogan. I got a sport coat. Got my hair cut. Put a tie on. Mr. Hogan closed the door, and I sat across from him and we had a good conversation. He asked how I had grown up. I asked him some questions and boom, turned pro that day.
I played well my rookie year on PGA TOUR, which was 1981. I kept my card. I had a Volkswagen Rabbit. I was married. And I had no money. I mean, like I tell a lot of the young players, my rookie year I think maybe a third of the tournaments I paid for my range balls at the tournament site. You know, there was no hospitality. There was no courtesy cars. There was no daycare. There was none of that stuff. And I actually had it way better than the guys before me.
I struggled my second year on Tour, but they went from the top 60 on the money list kept their card to the top 125. I met Hank Haney in the end of '82 on the back range of Pinehurst, during a Hall of Fame Classic. And you know we started changing my swing and I became ... I struggled still in '83 but I kept my card. And finally in '84 I think I had 15 top tens. And I won for the first time at the Greater Milwaukee Open.
What was fun about that was my parents were living just outside of Milwaukee at the time. So I stayed with my parents the week of the tournament and at that time, my wife, Alicia, and I were trying to buy our first nice home, but I didn't really have enough money. I was scared to try and pull the trigger on buying this house in Escondido, California. I remember my dad saying, "Oh you should just do it. You'll figure out a way to pay for it." And I'm like, "Yeah, sure Dad." I can't remember how much the house was, maybe 240 grand. We decided to go ahead and do it on the Wednesday of the pro-am. And then I went on to win the tournament that week.
I think I've always had the utmost respect for the game. And the uncertainty that the game holds. At my first win, the GMO, I remember playing with Tom Watson the last two days in the final group. And at the time, Tom was the greatest player in the world. So you know to be able to play with him, compete heads up against him and obviously beat him and win ... I remember on the 18th green on Sunday he shook my hand and he congratulated me on my first win and he said, "You know Mark, that's a great win. And I hope for many for you to come." And I thought that was a very classy move on Tom's part.
Look, I didn't know if I'd ever win again, but at least I won one time. So that's the way you count it. You just never know what's going to happen in the future. And luckily for me the time spent with Hank Haney changing my swing and becoming a better ball striker … and then '85, getting off to the quick start on the West Coast, winning the last Bing Crosby at Pebble. And then going over and winning the Hawaiian Open the next week. Those two wins back to back certainly gave me some confidence.
The first time I ever saw Pebble Beach was in 1978. I came up in the state amateur there in '78. Obviously I had seen it on TV before. I used to watch all of the golf tournaments, but I had never ventured that far north, being a Southern California kid. And I remember seeing coming through the gates there, and driving 17-Mile Drive and realizing, you know I felt like I had found the perfect place in the world. And to win the California State Am the next year in '79 at that time that would have been my greatest victory.
Everybody used to always ask me why over all of these years did you do so well at Pebble Beach. And I guess my take would be, is that, first of all, look I was in such awe of the Monterey Peninsula when I first got there. And then you know to have early success of winning the state amateur in '79. I had a chance to win the Crosby in '84 where I stood on the 18th tee, needing a birdie to try to tie for first and of course I didn't make birdie. And then coming back in '85 and winning. I just think when you go to a place and you have good experiences and you have some success, it breeds on itself. So, going forward as the years went on and I kept having more success there, I just remember several coming down the stretch when I might have had a chance to win, or I might have been leading, just reminding myself, "Hey Mark, you've done this before. You can do it again."
You always wanted to win a major championship, but if you could have success on any golf course, you'd love to put on your resume that you've had a win at Pebble Beach because that's one of the iconic golf courses in all of the world, let alone the United States. And so to have won there in '85, '89, '90, ’92 and ‘97. To win any event five times is pretty cool, especially there from the standpoint of the history of the golf course, the history of the players that have won there. The fact that it's with celebrities, or business people or sports people, in the pro-am event. And you know, the weather can obviously be very trying at times there.Mark O'Meara has won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am a record five times.
I think the two highlights ... in '97 is when I clipped Tiger and (David) Duval by a shot. But the first, there was two times I played at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. In '86 I played it. It just became the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in '86. So I won the last Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. That was in '85.
In '86 I invited my father to come and play with me as my amateur partner. We made the cut and we played all four days. And it was spectacular because my mom and my dad were there. It's a dream come true to be able to play with your dad. And then when I won again in, I can't remember, I think it was '89, something like that, I invited my dad to come back and play with me again. And that second time we played together, we made the cut again, which was pretty cool for him to play with me twice and to make the cut both times. But what was really cool about the second time was we made the cut and I was leading the tournament after three rounds and we played in the final on Sunday and I won the tournament with my dad playing right alongside me.
I met Tiger for the first time when he was 17. He came through Orlando with his father, Earl, and we played golf with him. Mark McCormack set it up. And I was living in Orlando an hour north and he was down in Doral playing a tournament down there, a junior tournament. And then we exchanged numbers and we stayed in touch. And a couple of years later … well I had seen him a couple times on Tour because he played, obviously as an amateur, and obviously some pro tournaments. And then when he turned pro he moved him out of California and moved right into Isleworth when he was 19. And so that would have been in '96 I think it was. And we started practicing together, playing together, hung out pretty much from sun up to sun down. I'd take him to the grocery store. I mean, he became my little brother. For 10 years he was my protege you might say.
It was perfect timing because I was 30-whatever I was at the time. And my career was good. It wasn't great by any means, but it was one where I think he felt comfortable around me. There weren't a lot of 19-year-old kids out there that were in his ballpark. And so like I said, I think it was good for both of us. It was good for him from the standpoint he could lean on somebody a little bit older and get some advice. And it was good for me because I am all of a sudden playing with this young, talented, full of energy guy. He hadn't even won a tournament yet when we started playing. To witness and be around somebody like that and then watch what he did -- winning the Masters in '97 in the fashion that he did. And then obviously myself coming back in '98 and winning the Masters. And having him put the green jacket on me, I couldn't have picked a better scenario.
I think what hurt me a lot of times in majors was that I would always put too much pressure on myself. I knew what it meant to win a major championship because at that time I had won 12 or 13 times on the PGA TOUR, but major championships had eluded me. I'm on the list of next-best players to have never won a major, which I thought was a very nice list, It was a complimentary list because when I was a kid, like I said earlier, to make any kind of living playing golf and staying out there on TOUR would have been great, for me anyway. So in '98, when I look back, I would say, I think when I finally realized that maybe my time had come and passed, that maybe it wasn't in the cards for me to win a major championship. And maybe when I lowered my expectations, that's when it all came through.
When I got to Augusta in '98, I practiced with Tiger and I wasn't hitting the ball well. I wasn't putting well. I would say my confidence was very low. And yet I stood on Sunday on the 18th green with a putt to win the Masters and it went in. So, I'd say lowering my expectations. Maybe putting a little, a lot less pressure on myself, especially when you look at my scores there. I shot 74 the first day. It was windy. It was playing tough. I didn't putt well. Now it's OK, just try to make the cut. I shot 70 the second round. Now you make the cut. And then it's like now let's play well enough on the weekend maybe to make the top 24 so I get invited back next year. I shoot 68 on Saturday in windy conditions. Next thing I'm in the final group on Sunday with Fred Couples, and I shoot 67 and win by a shot. I don't think anybody had me on their radar screen to win the Masters at 41 years of age, including myself.
I made a long birdie putt on No. 4 to take the lead (it was his first lead ever in 15 starts at the Masters). I think any time you're in the final group in a major championship it's a little nerve wracking. But I just think that you just have to, I don't know, the cards just kind of all aligned for me that week.
The place was abuzz because Jack, who was 58 at the time, he was like 4 under after seven holes. And he was on the leaderboard. When you're a kid growing up playing golf, you idolize the man. I remember when he was 46 winning there. And what it meant and how exciting it was for not just the game of golf and the Masters, but for all of sports. And there I was at 41 and I just remember on the last day there was ... when you win a golf tournament, if you don't think that there's a little bit of luck involved in timing, you're fooling yourself. Unless you're Tiger Woods and you win by 15. There's probably not a lot of luck in that.
I remember there was a couple of moments there when I look back on it, for example, I was tied for the lead and I bogeyed 10 with an 8-iron from the middle of the fairway. I hit it heavy and it came up short of the green. Didn't get the ball up and down. And then on the 12th hole, the par-three, you know the pin is over in that famous spot on the right side and you're trying to hit it in the middle of the green. I had an 8-iron and as soon as I hit it, it was going right at the pin but I caught it. I hit it good, but I didn't absolutely flush it. And I was thinking, "Oh my god that's gotta get up. Gotta get up." And it hit on the fringe. I mean literally a foot, a foot and a half, 18, 20 inches short of where it landed, it would have come back into Rae's Creek. And it stayed up there on the fringe. And I two-putted and made par.
And then on the 13th hole is where Fred made a mess of it. He hit it left into the azalea bushes and he made a double. And now it's like we're all 6 to 8 under. Duval was 8 under. On 15 I'd hit a good tee shot and Fred had blocked it right over in the 17th fairway. And once again we were two shots behind David and he had posted 8 under. And I think he had three-putted 16. He was 9 under at one time. We were both 6 under at that time. And I hit a 3-iron that I hit pretty good from the fairway going for the green but it flew on, once again, it flew on the front fringe. I mean 2 feet short of where it landed with a 3-iron it was going to come back into the water. And luckily it skipped forward and it was on the green. And Fred hit a 6-iron over the top of the trees to about 8 feet. I two-putted for birdie. Fred made his eagle putt. Of course everybody's going crazy. He's 8 under now. I'm 7 under. Duval once again is in clubhouse at Butler Cabin with Jack Stephens at 8 under. 16th hole, I hit a good 6-iron to about 18 feet. Fred hit it on the green to about 25 feet. Two-putted. I had a really good putt. It just missed on the low side, on the left. I thought it was going to go in, and it didn't.
When I classify myself as a player, and playing professional golf, I would never say that in my own mind, that I was never like an overconfident player. But I remember walking off of that green, handing my ball to Jerry Higginbotham, who was caddying for me at the time, and I said to Jerry, very quietly, I said, "You know, Jerry, that's as good a 6-iron as I could hit. And that's as good a putt as I could get under the circumstances." I said, "You know what? Give me a new ball. I'm going to birdie the next two." And I don't know why I said that. I didn't believe that. It's just the weirdest thing. It just came out of my mouth. And no one heard it. He heard it. But no one else heard it.
We walked to the tee and I hit a good drive on 17. Hit a 9-iron right over the top of the pin to about 12 feet. I felt comfortable on that putt. I felt I could make it. I made it. And now I'm 8 under. And Fred made par and he's 8 under and we're standing on the 18th tee. I hit a good drive. Fred hit it in the left bunker. Then he hit it in the right bunker. I hit a 7-iron to about 16, 18 feet. I remember I needed some water really badly because my mouth was dry. But I also said to myself, as Fred was going into the bunker, I'm like, hey, you always have to expect the unexpected. And I said to myself, "You know what? He's going to hole this bunker shot. And I'm going to make this putt to tie him."
And he didn't. He hit it about 4 feet below the hole and then as I was lining my putt I up, I remember my self-talk. I was like, "You know, Mark, look, this is what you play for." I never once thought that if I make this putt I win the Masters, I'm going to get the green jacket. Or I'll be the Masters champ. I never got ahead of myself. But I remember saying to myself, as I walked around, looked at it from all of the angles, I said, "This is what you play for. Sooner or later you're going to have to make the putt. Whether you make it here or you gotta go to 10, gotta go to 11. Or wherever it may be. It might be this putt. A 1-footer. A 5-footer. You're going to have to make a putt sooner or later. So why not put the best stroke you can on this putt?"
So that was my total self-talk as I was lining it up and as I got over it and took my practice strokes, when I hit my putt, about 2 feet off the putter I knew I had hit a good putt. I had no idea what was going to happen. But I had hit this putt. The people stand up. It's tracking down there. It was about a foot and a half from the hole. And I thought to myself, the first vision that came to my mind was, it was breaking off to the left. And I'm thinking, please don't lip out. And when it caught the left center and dove in the hole my arms and hands and my putter went up into the air. And if you look at my expression on my face, I was in shock and disbelief as to what the hell just happened. And then I realized that I had won the Masters.Mark O'Meara sank a 20-footer on the 72nd hole to clinch the 1998 Masters.
They walked me straight up to Butler Cabin. And there's just a lot going on. Then we're down there in Butler Cabin and they're on commercial break and obviously Jim Nantz is down there with Joe Ford and Matt Kuchar, who was the low amateur that year, in 1998. And obviously Tiger. And Tiger, he was thrilled for me. It was really a special moment.
You always hope that if you ever have a chance to win a tournament, any tournament, let alone a major championship, that it's in your hands and you do something well as opposed to somebody else making a mistake and basically giving it to you. So I felt like I might have waited a long time, but it was fun to win it in that fashion. To birdie three out of the last four holes, to birdie those last two holes. In the media room, they're telling you all this stuff. And you have no idea what's going on because your head's still spinning because you’re taking this all in. But somebody mentioned that the only other player at that time to win the Masters with birdies on the final two holes was the great Arnold Palmer.
The champions dinner in 1999 I served a big appetizer bowl of sushi and then had chicken and steak fajitas. Every living Masters champion came to the dinner. So Jackie Burke was there. Gene Sarazen, with whom I share a locker at Augusta National, he was there at the dinner. To sit at the head of the table with Byron Nelson. And at the time, Jack Stephens was the chairman of Augusta National. And then look down at that table and you see these players who are the greatest of the greats and wondering what the heck am I doing sitting up here. Do I really belong here?
Then I go over to Royal Birkdale and win The Open Championship. Dream year.
In '87, I won a European Tour event there. It was called the Lawrence Batley International, which was on the European Tour, which eventually became the English Open. But I won at Birkdale in 1987, in that event on the European Tour and then in '91 I came back and played in the Open Championship and was tied for the lead after 54 holes. And then played in the final group with Ian Baker Finch. And went on to watch Finchy win the Claret Jug to be named the champion golfer of the year. So I had good vibes about Birkdale. I think I shot maybe 2 under on the final round and posted even par. And went into a four-hole playoff with Brian Watts.
I remember that on the 71st hole I had about a 14-footer for birdie. And there were a lot of roars going all day out there because the conditions were pretty tough. But one of the roars, which I found out later, was when Justin Rose, who was 17, holed it from short of the green on the left for birdie with his pitch shot. And the other roars I knew, because I just know, because I play with him all the time, were Tiger. And he was making a move up the leaderboard. On 17, when I had this 14-footer of mine, I looked over at the leaderboard, and Tiger had posted 1-over par total for the tournament. And at the time that's what I was, 1 over. And so when I was lining up my putt, I said to myself, my self-talk, I said, "You know. I know he's probably watching right now. And I always make these at home when I'm playing against him. This is going to totally tick him off when I pour this one in."
And really that's what I said to myself. I got over it. I felt good about it. I felt comfortable. And I poured it right in the middle. And then I parred the last hole. And sure enough, when I got done, I signed my card and the R&A were like, “Brian is tied with you back there. He's on the 18th hole. He's just on the first cut on the left and it's a very long, demanding par 4. You can stay here. You can go hit balls. What do you want to do?" And I said, "My wife and my two kids are on the 18th green. I'll just sit with them and watch."
So I sat down with them and watched. Brian Watts hits his second shot and it just trickled into the front bunker and he had a really difficult stance. Tough, tough bunker shot. And as he was going in there and he was looking at what he was trying to do, I remember Shaun, who was 9 years old, my son looked up and he said, "Hey Dad. You're gonna win! You're gonna win!"
And I remember looking at Shaun and I'm like, "You know what, Shaun? You can never think that way."
And he goes, "What do you mean?"
And I said, "You always have to expect the unexpected. You gotta think your opponent is going to do something well."
And he's looking at me like, what are you talking about? Brian Watts got in there with one foot out of the bunker and one foot in. Splashed his bunker shot out to about 16 inches, a foot from the hole. And my son looked up at me and he was like, "Dad. How did you know he was going to do that?"
I said, "I didn't. But now I gotta be ready to go into a playoff."
And I think that was a key moment. Having that talk with my son.
I had to wait for him on the 15th tee for a while. He finally showed up and I birdied 15 and was off and running. I think I won by two.
What they did back then … obviously I have my Masters trophy. And the Claret Jug, they would give you like a smaller version of it. Like not very big. Maybe a fourth of the size or a third of the size of the Claret Jug. And then after Greg Norman won his second one, he went to the R&A and so then they let us build one that is 96, 97 percent the size. So the Claret Jug that I have at home is almost the exact same size that I got to keep for a year.Mark O’Meara became the oldest winner of multiple majors in the same year with his win at Royal Birkdale.
When I talked to (longtime Associated Press golf writer) Doug Ferguson, it was debatable whether I was going to get into the Hall of Fame. Doug goes, "You know, Mark, I'd say that you're borderline whether you deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. But in saying that, there's guys that are in there that don't have the record that you have. So, I would have to vote for you."
And I respect that. And I told him, I said, "Look. I've never classified myself as a great player. I classify myself as a good player, a very good player." But when you think of the greats, to me somebody who's great is somebody who's won five or six major championships. Everybody just loves to say this person's great, that person's great. For Mark O'Meara, when I look at my life, now that I'm 63, I've had a great career for me. But relative to the greats of the game, I don't put myself in that category.
I mean, that's the way I feel. You know, when I think of great, I obviously think of Jack Nicklaus. I think of Tiger Woods. I think of Arnold Palmer. I think of Gary Player. I think of guys like that. Look, I think it's great to have won two major championships. Like I'm fortunate that at a very late stage of my life to have put the icing on the cake. That certainly happened to me in 1998.
From age 42 to 50, I never went back to qualifying school. I never lost my card. I was able to use my all-time money exemption a couple times.
I was really looking forward to PGA TOUR Champions, and to be fair, it's been some of the best times that I've had playing golf
I wish I would have won more out here than I have. I feel like I've played fairly well. My second year on the Champions Tour when I went through my divorce, that was very a difficult moment in my life. It wasn't something that I would wish on anybody. I didn't want to go through that. But it was brutally tough. But now after playing out there for 12 or 13 years, you know to have only won three times is disappointing. But on the other hand, I think I've finished second about 16 times and it wasn't because I played poorly on Sunday. It was always because these guys play so well. You look at Bernhard Langer, what he's accomplished on our PGA TOUR Champions. I would put it almost on par with Tiger Woods dominating the PGA TOUR for 10 years. That's kind of what I think Bernhard has done. It just amazes me. But for me to have won in my 20s in professional golf. To have won in my 30s. To have won in my 40s. To have won in my 50s. And to have won in my 60s. There's no other sport that you could have the opportunity to do something like that.
Mark O'Meara wins at Cologuard Classic