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SPORTS EXTRA / SPECIAL SECTION: British Open

Minor Struggle

Mark O'Meara Is Not Exactly in a Slump, but He Hasn't Made His Mark This Year

July 15, 1999|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Remember Mark O'Meara, the reigning British Open champion? Sure you do. Round face, smiles a lot, also won the Masters last year. Went 18 years without a major championship, then won two of them in three months.

Whatever happened to that guy?

Well, O'Meara hasn't gone away, although he is hardly at the top of his game as he begins defense of the title he won last year at Royal Birkdale.

In his last five tournaments, O'Meara is a combined 14 over par and hasn't finished better than a tie for 28th, including missing the cut at the U.S. Open.

O'Meara has three top 10s this year, but none since March. His $663,854 in earnings is No. 40 on the money list.

"Well, my form is . . . it's been fair," he said. "I could be playing a little better. It's a combination of things and, you know, golf is a fickle game. That's just the way it is. I wouldn't say I'm having a major struggle by any means.

"I would admit my confidence is not sky high, that's for sure."

Of course, that's a lot different than last year at Birkdale, where O'Meara shot 68-72-68 the last three days to finish tied with Brian Watts, then beat him by two shots in a four-hole playoff.

At 41, O'Meara became the oldest player in modern golf history to win two majors in one year. He said at the time that it wasn't such a big deal, the age thing, because the golf ball doesn't know how old you are.

On the last day, O'Meara made four birdies between No. 11 and No. 17, offset slightly by bogeys at No. 13 and No. 16, then watched Watts force the playoff with a scrambling par at No. 18.

But O'Meara coasted in the four-hole playoff. It may have taken him 58 majors to win his first one, yet all of a sudden he had two in a row.

"It was a dream come true," O'Meara said.

He spent last week playing golf in Ireland and fishing with Tiger Woods and David Duval. After missing the cut at Pinehurst, O'Meara took a two-week vacation in Park City, Utah. He caught some trout and salmon with Woods, Duval, Payne Stewart, Lee Janzen and Stuart Appleby.

That's two outstanding threesomes on the golf course, which is where O'Meara wants to get his act together again.

"I don't feel like I've tried to put any more expectations on myself, feeling like, 'OK, I'm a double major winner in '98 and I was player of the year, I have to play well in '99.'

"I always feel like I have to play well whenever I tee it up. When I don't, I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed with my second-round score at the U.S. Open when I shot 79 and missed the cut."

Whether O'Meara over-scheduled himself to cash in on his big year is debatable. He did play the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, England, which he won, and also played in the PGA Grand Slam in Hawaii. This year, O'Meara has played in Dubai and the Deutsche Bank SAP Open.

That doesn't appear to be a burdensome schedule, laden by appearance fees, especially for someone who played only 19 PGA Tour events in 1998. Besides, cashing in at 41 isn't such a bad idea. What would he be waiting for, an even better year?

The fact is O'Meara has 16 victories, two of them majors, and a healthy bank account accumulated in a professional career that began in 1981. You would have to call him a finished product, even if O'Meara insists he is far from finished.

Last year and Royal Birkdale really wasn't that long ago, he said.

"It was kind of disappointing to have to bring the Claret Jug back this week," O'Meara said. "It would be nice to come out and have a great week and play well. I'm looking forward to going out and playing reasonably well."

Reasonably well would be a nice place to start.

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