O’Meara finds renewal on and off course

Mark O'Meara's game is looking up again after 15 months of off-course distractions.

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This story originally ran in the April 11, 2009 issue of Golfweek, and won honorable mention in the Golf Writers Association of America’s annual writing contest for non-daily columns.

• • •

The substandard numbers and sad words match. Youth and history say you’re supposed to cash in on the Champions Tour at age 51. But Mark O’Meara finished 62nd in earnings last year. That’s odd until you listen. Beneath every underachievement is an underbelly.

In O’Meara’s case, he didn’t so much wear the broken heart of a pending divorce on his sleeve in 2008 as he did drag it on the ground behind him. Golf tends to become harder when you’re dropping tears and not sleeping.

“I was very crushed,” the double major winner of 1998 said of his breakup after 29 years of marriage. “Extremely crushed. I did a lot of crying. A tremendous amount of crying. The last 15 months have had more impact than anything that has ever happened to me – more than winning the Masters and British Open.”

Life is life and golf is golf, and Mark O’Meara is nothing if not open. It doesn’t take long to find out why he went from a promising rookie season in 2007, when he had four runner-up finishes, to a flameout ’08, when he had but two top 10s.

The story behind the statistics always is more compelling than the data itself. And a case of the shanks beats the unraveling of a personal life.

“My swing and confidence level were a zero,” O’Meara said recently during a lengthy, candid interview at the Cap Cana Championship in the Dominican Republic. “I didn’t even want to hit a shot. It was like a car when the red light comes on. You’d better get over and get some gas. But I had no gas, and there was no gas station that could’ve filled my tank at the time.”

Over the years, O’Meara told banquet crowds that wife Alicia was the greatest thing that ever happened to him and the reason for his golf success. He still lauds her, calling her a wonderful wife and mother. But couples can drift apart. The rigors of constant travel over three decades can challenge the best of relationships. Countless families have been torn behind the so-called glamour of Tour life.

O’Meara says Alicia told him Dec. 18, 2007, that “she couldn’t do it anymore, that she wanted to be on her own.” That was two days before their wedding anniversary and a week before his worst Christmas. On top of all that, he and son Shaun, now 19, got stuck on a Utah mountain for several hours while snowmobiling Christmas Eve. They took 9 1⁄2 hours to negotiate three-quarters of a mile and didn’t get home till midnight.

O’Meara spent a couple of days lying around fighting dehydration. That was the easy part.

It was the wound of rejection that lingered.

“I offered to quit playing golf for a year and take her anywhere on a trip around the world for a year,” he said. “I wanted to save the marriage, and she didn’t want to be in the marriage.”

So O’Meara filed papers last May, started dating a Houston woman in August after tiring of being on his own and officially became divorced March 16. During the ordeal, his spirit and golf sank together. Rumination can be the ruination of anyone’s game.

“Life’s not easy with uncertainty,” O’Meara said. “There’s enough uncertainty in golf. From Christmas until August, the uncertainty of whether I was going to be married or not married, whether my wife was going to come around, whether she wanted me back was always there. When you’re kind of rejected, you’re always trying to figure out, ‘What did I do wrong? Why did I fail? How come I couldn’t solve it?’

“If I was a playboy or a guy who wasn’t a committed person, it would’ve been easy. It would’ve been like, ‘OK, there’s my hall pass to go off and take it to the deep end.’ ”

During the last four years, Shane Joel has served as the 16-time PGA Tour winner’s caddie. The past 15 months, he also has played the role of shoulder and shrink.

“He was so down, getting by on 21⁄2 hours of sleep,” Joel said of O’Meara in 2008. “A lot was going on in his head between shots. He wanted to make the marriage work so bad. He was over a shot last year when he stepped away and said, ‘Hey, Shane, all the stuff I’ve been through, do you think I’ve done the right thing?’ His mind was not on golf.”

It is now. The story has a happy present.

Late last year, O’Meara improved his mental and physical shape. Pilates and core work has him in better condition than he was during that magical season of ’98, according to Joel. Time and his new budding relationship have helped heal the breakup pain. And he is focused on golf again.

“I’ve done a 180 (degrees) personally and emotionally,” he said. “I’m more determined than ever to get back in the winner’s circle. And realize I can do it.”

Recent results support the thesis. He has two runner-up finishes in four starts this year.

Interesting topic, new love. The rebound love affair has put such a hop in O’Meara’s step that he says he’s already “semi-officially engaged.” Yes, the ink is barely dry on divorce papers, but he proclaims, “I’m planning on getting engaged very soon.” That means a move to Houston.

A mutual friend there introduced him to Meredith Berkman, a 38-year-old mother of a 7-year-old boy.

They talked by telephone for three weeks before he flew in for a date. Then one odd thing after another happened during their first 24 hours of friendship.

The day after meeting, O’Meara’s head was split open when he got beaned in the forehead while playing Houston Country Club. She called her ex-husband, an orthopedic surgeon, and asked if he could help get O’Meara into an emergency room.

“What’s his name?”

“Mark.”

“I need his last name.”

“O’Meara.”

“Are you kidding me?”

A minute later, the single-digit-handicap called back and said, “You’re all set.”

O’Meara pauses in midstory and says, “Wait, it only gets better.”

That night, he and Meredith were driving to a Houston Texans exhibition game when they spotted her son and ex a few cars over. Next thing O’Meara knew, he was eating before the game with them at a Mexican restaurant, where he met her ex-in-laws. Her former father-in-law, a golf nut, was taken aback. “Oh, my God,” he said. “It’s Mark O’Meara. What are you doing here?”

The short answer is this: Getting on with his life in an unexpected way.

“It was so comical, all this stuff that happened,” O’Meara said. “It was a movie. This was the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen.”

Eight months later, his movie keeps improving. He rates it four stars.

“It’s nice to be in love again,” he said. “It’s nice to have a person who wants to be with me.”

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