SOUTHPORT, England – Mark O’Meara was 24 and a PGA Tour rookie the first time he headed across the pond to play in a British Open, turning up at England’s Royal St. George’s in 1981, the year Texan Bill Rogers prevailed.
O’Meara’s tiny rented room that week in Sandwich was barren: A small bed, a dresser, a mirror to check himself as he headed out the door.
“It didn’t have a TV, didn’t have anything. Nothing. It was totally miserable, to be honest,” O’Meara said. “And I still loved it.”
He motioned over his shoulder, to the rolling 18th hole at Royal Birkdale, where he’d just finished a practice round early Tuesday.
“This part of the whole thing,” he said, looking out across the expansive English links, “that’s what I’ve really loved.”
This week marks O’Meara’s 31st, and final, dance with the Open.
By rule, as a past champion – O’Meara captured the 1998 Open in a playoff over fellow American Brian Watts on that same green at Birkdale aside which he stood on Tuesday – he can compete in the Open up until he’s 60, which he turned in January. Time is tapping him on the shoulder, and O’Meara wants to go out in style.
The R&A wants the same. It sent out a feeler a few weeks ago to O’Meara’s longtime agent, Peter Malik, making sure the player wouldn’t be offended if he were asked to play at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, striking the first tee ball of the 146th Open. O’Meara is delighted to answer that call.
“First of all,” O’Meara said with a wry smile, “I get up early at my age. But to have that bestowed on me by the R&A, a group that knows the great respect I have for this championship, well, it’s going to be special. A little nerve-wracking maybe, but special. I’ve had so many special things happen to me here.”
He also has a pretty nice history in the Open, and an especially nice relationship with the links at Birkdale. If it’s not at the top of his favorite courses of the championship rota, it’s right there. O’Meara loves that the course sits there right in front of a player, with just one blind shot – the tee shot at the par-4 ninth.
People remember his 1998 success at Birkdale – at 41, he’d win his second major in three months, adding to his Masters’ green jacket – but O’Meara had previous Birkdale successes. In 1987, he captured the European Tour’s Lawrence Batley International, holing not one, but two 7-irons for eagle to win.
Four years later at Birkdale, he and Ian Baker-Finch were tied for the lead through 54 holes at the 1991 Open. Baker-Finch, who, like O’Meara, resided in Orlando at the time, would win that day, going out in 29 strokes and shooting 66. At home in the U.S. shortly after, O’Meara fielded a call from his friend, with a request: He wanted to drink from the Claret Jug with his friend. Little did O’Meara know that seven years later, back at Birkdale, he’d have a jug of his own from which to drink. He’d fly it home to Florida with a young player by the name of Tiger Woods, who’d go on to win three of his own.
O’Meara was 41 at the time, so winning two majors was quite a surprise. There was a spark inside him credited to that new kid who’d moved in down the block at Isleworth, a young meteor whom O’Meara graciously took under his wing and mentored. Woods owned one major at the time, but it was clear he had the game to win a bunch, and the “old-timer” was pushed to stay up with him when the two practiced and played at Isleworth.
Lo and behold, O’Meara emerged from a pack to win the Masters with a final-hole birdie that spring. At Birkdale, he won a four-hole aggregate playoff over Watts after Watts had made an incredible par from the sand at the 72nd hole.
“Maybe when I realized that it wasn’t meant to be for me to win a major championship,” he said, “all of a sudden the door opened up.”
Shaun O’Meara was 9 at the time, and sitting with his dad, his mom and his sister on a grassy bank left of the 18th green as Watts, tied for the lead, worked his way into an awkward stance to attempt what was a very difficult bunker shot, needing par to force a playoff. The youngster assessed the situation and congratulated his dad on his victory, only to watch Watts pull off a magical escape, his ball finishing three feet from the hole.
For the O’Meara family, it marked a teachable moment: “Don’t ever underestimate your opponent, son,” Mark told Shaun. And then he got ready for the playoff.
This week, Shaun, who runs his own clothing business, is on his dad’s bag, just as he was two years ago, when the elder O’Meara rallied to make the cut at St. Andrews in Scotland a few days after being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“We made four incredible pars on those last holes to make the cut,” Shaun said. “He really showed the heart of a lion.”
O’Meara won 16 times on the PGA Tour, four times in Europe, and has two PGA Tour Champions victories. He played on Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. It’s been a nice ride for the son of a furniture salesman who moved his family around a lot, leading his young teenaged son to take up golf as his newest “friend” when the O’Meara family landed in California. His play on the Champions Tour this season has not been good. O’Meara said his ballstriking has been fine, but his short game continuously has let him down, and he just hasn’t been scoring. Maybe a return to Birkdale – his European Pebble Beach – will get him going.
“He’s still got plenty of game,” Shaun O’Meara says of his dad. “The history he has on this course, standing over some of those shots, he’s got to have some great memories.”
A funny story from O’Meara’s near-miss in 1991 at Birkdale. Three shots back, O’Meara hit his approach to the edge of the green at 18, then waited for Baker-Finch to play from the rough. Baker-Finch played, and was about to be declared the champion golfer of the year, so O’Meara wanted to give him his stage. He respectfully stayed back as Baker-Finch made that glorious walk up 18, soaking up the atmosphere in the game’s oldest major.
The crowd filled in behind Baker-Finch down the fairway, though, and O’Meara was caught inside the masses.
He tried his best to weave through, and was relieved to find a tall bobby (police officer), who unfortunately, had no clue O’Meara was playing that day. “Excuse me, I need to get through,” O’Meara said. The bobby replied, “Back, Son!” and raised his right arm hard against O’Meara’s forehead, knocking his hat off his head.
“He was a big guy, and he kind of jammed my neck a little bit,” O’Meara said, now able to chuckle at the memory. “I got smoked. I definitely felt it for a few days afterward.”
Hopefully on Sunday (he has made the cut in his last three Opens, and missed only six in 30 Open starts), O’Meara will get a better opportunity to savor that final walk up 18. It’ll be emotional, as it should be. It’s been a heck of a run.
“To be able to hoist that Claret Jug on the 18th green at Birkdale, and to be proclaimed as the champion golfer of the year,” O’Meara said, “I don’t know of many things in sports that can be much better than that.
“I’ve been a lucky guy.”