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O'Meara returns to his golf roots

Once a local standout in college and high school, he's ready for the challenge on Champions Tour.

March 09, 2007|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

The trees are bigger. The roads are wider. The Irvine Coast Country Club is now the Newport Beach Country Club, and the golf balls don't automatically pop out of the holes after putts.

Still, in a lot of ways, Mark O'Meara was home. When he begins play in the Toshiba Classic today, his third event since turning 50 and joining the Champions Tour, he'll be walking over familiar turf at the Newport Beach Country Club.

He learned the game and played high school golf here. And his wife, Alicia, attended Dana Point Dana Hills High School.

"I remember driving down there to pick up Alicia and Crown Valley Parkway was a two-lane road with no stop lights," O'Meara said. "People who see Orange County now don't see it the way I saw it. When they built the South Coast Plaza Hotel, it was eight stories and there was nothing higher than two stories for miles."

For the next three days, O'Meara will negotiate a field filled with names that conjure up other memories. The biggest lesson he has learned in his previous two Champions Tour events is that everyone on this tour has a formidable history.

"To tell you the truth, on the PGA Tour, there were always a lot of names I wouldn't recognize," said O'Meara, who was an All-American at Long Beach State. "On this tour, you see the leaderboard and you'll see guys who have had careers."

O'Meara fits nicely into that A-list crowd. He amassed 16 PGA Tour victories, including the Masters and British Open in 1998. Pebble Beach was all but a personal playground, as he won the AT&T Pro-Am four times.

Not bad for a sport O'Meara told his wife he'd "try for two or three years to see if I could earn some money and then I would get a job."

The tour offers a little change from the years traveling the PGA Tour, the wear and tear of which began to have an effect.

"I haven't played that great the last three years," he said. "... It's great to be on the tour, but there are a lot of things people don't see....

"I've had some peaks and valleys, and being on the tour 27 years has been good. But the greatest times in my life were when I played high school, college and amateur golf, driving home in my Volkswagen Rabbit from Long Beach State."

O'Meara, who now lives in Windermere, Fla., started on that road when his family moved to Mission Viejo, then a community of 13,000, in 1969. He began learning the game at the Mission Viejo Country Club, where he would sneak onto the course to poach a few holes.

It wasn't long before he had a job there, which furthered his education. He played on the Mission Viejo High golf team, which more than once took him to what was then Irvine Coast Country Club, the same course he will play today.

"It was a little different, the trees were smaller," said O'Meara, who became nationally known when he won the U.S. Amateur championship in 1979. "They used to have these things that would pop your ball out of the hole. They didn't want you to walk around the cup. I remember if you missed a short putt and had to tap in, you'd look to see if the coach was watching, and then just whack the ball when it came out."

Those are the coming-home memories O'Meara had heading into the event. As of today, it's back to business.

"It's going to be nice to play in front of friends and family," O'Meara said. "But there's a little more pressure on me because I am from here."

chris.foster@latimes.com

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