John Cook and Mark O'Meara returned to scene of their first duel at Canterbury Golf Club

John Cook and Mark O’Meara returned to scene of their first duel at Canterbury Golf Club

O'Meara (left) came in 14th and Cook 17th at the Senior PGA.
Darren Carroll/SI

A week after finishing a disappointing eighth at the Players Championship, Tiger Woods was miked up for a clinic at Tiger Jam XII, his annual rock and roll and golf fund-raiser in Las Vegas. Since he hates to work alone, Woods had brought an accomplice, Tour pro John Cook.

“The first thing he says is, ‘Cookie, you’re going to hit all the shots today,'” says Cook. “I tell him, ‘Tiger, you’re the one who needs the lesson.’ The crowd loved it, and he loved it.”

The next morning at the Tiger Jam pro-am, Cook teed it up in a group that included fellow pro and FOT (Friend of Tiger) Mark O’Meara — who had missed the previous day’s clinic to attend the graduation from Southern Cal of his 22-year-old daughter, Michelle — plus Adrian Young, the drummer for the rock band No Doubt. “Adrian had a Mohawk going,” says O’Meara, flashing his trademark grin. “It was crazy.”

So what were two golfers in their 50s doing hanging around at Tiger Jam? Cook and O’Meara are two of Woods’s closest friends and confidantes, even though they’re nearly two decades older than Tiger. Nothing strange there. An older player taking a younger pro under his wing is one of golf’s enduring traditions. For example, a young O’Meara was mentored by Ben Hogan, while Cook was guided by Byron Nelson and Ken Venturi.

But Cook and O’Meara were linked long before they tutored Tiger. Last week they were at Canterbury Golf Club in suburban Cleveland, the place where their competitive relationship first took root. It was at Canterbury in 1979 that O’Meara upset defending champion Cook in one of the most one-sided (8 and 7) U.S. Amateur finals. Thirty years later they returned for the Senior PGA Championship, the senior circuit’s oldest (70 years) and most prestigious major championship, and, naturally, were paired for the first two rounds. “It’s great to be back where I got my clock cleaned,” said the 51-year-old Cook, tongue firmly in cheek.

Neither player experienced flashbacks. “I’m 52. It’s getting hard to remember anything,” O’Meara said, but he did recall one vivid moment from that long-ago match. In ’79, when he had a chance to go 9 up with nine holes to play, “my first thought was, If I lose this thing now, it will be the biggest [collapse] in the history of the world.”

On May 20 O’Meara and his 19-year-old son, Shaun (who plays on the UC Irvine team), attended Game 1 of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff series against O’Meara’s beloved Orlando Magic, scoring seats right behind the Cavs’ bench. Mark was caught on TV by Tiger, who fired off a text message.

“Tiger was like, Hey man, aren’t you supposed to be getting your rest?” O’Meara says. “I said, Listen, I’m here to support my team, and I’m sitting a foot from LeBron James, who told me to tell you to get your act in gear. Tiger texted me back, saying, Tell LeBron I have nine MVPs and 14 championships. Then he texted me again. And I’m not done. It was pretty funny.”

History doesn’t usually come with storybook endings, and for these rivals last weekend’s finish was no exception. O’Meara and Cook went into Sunday’s final round on the fringe of contention, but neither became a factor. O’Meara finished 14th, with a three-over 283, nine shots behind winner Michael Allen (page G6). Cook, a shot behind O’Meara in 17th place, was one of many players baffled by Canterbury’s wicked greens.

The one-stroke difference symbolized how slightly Cook’s and O’Meara’s lives and careers have diverged. On the course O’Meara, always the better putter, made more big ones and validated his resume by winning a Masters and a British Open in 1998, at age 41. Cook, the better ball-striker, was two mulligans away from winning the ’92 British Open and PGA Championship. (He missed a two-footer on the 71st hole at Muirfield and hit a a poor approach on the 72nd hole at Bellerive.)

Off the course, they have been in lockstep. Both players are Californians who migrated to the tax haven of Florida. Cook says he saved enough on taxes to put two kids through college, but, says O’Meara, “I saved more because I moved there sooner. I was the one who persuaded John to get out of California.” They both ended up in the exclusive Isleworth subdivision, Tiger’s neighborhood, near Orlando.

O’Meara still owns his giant Mark O’Mansion at Isleworth but splits time between his Park City, Utah, summer home and a house near the Rice campus in Houston, which he shares with the new love in his life, Meredith Berkman, a pharmaceutical rep. They plan to marry on June 27. O’Meara’s 29-year marriage to his first wife, Alicia, fell apart 18 months ago. Until he met Berkman last fall, O’Meara was disconsolate, and it showed in his play.

Cook was there for his friend. “He didn’t understand it,” Cook says. “Gosh, how many times did we have the same conversation from January through September last year, usually on the road at dinner?”

O’Meara was also there for Cook in ’92 after that British Open cruelly slipped away. They shared a house that week, and when Cook returned after the final round, O’Meara was waiting with kind words and Old Jock beer. “It looked like motor oil,” O’Meara says.

Now, 17 years later, the two have seen their roles somewhat reversed on the Champions tour. O’Meara has yet to win there, while Cook has done so twice. “I love competing out here,” Cook says. “I’ve been competing since I was 10. I wouldn’t know what else to do. When I’m 75 I’ll probably be playing shuffleboard and some guy will say, I’ve got the winner, and it’ll probably be Mark. And you know — we’ll still try to beat each other.”