Mark O’Meara on Tiger Woods, the Ryder Cup Captaincy and the Hall of Fame
It’s been 17 years since Mark O’Meara, then 41, stunned the golf world — and himself — by winning two majors in the span of three months. His 1998 Masters and British Open victories earned O’Meara Player of the Year honors, propelled him to No. 2 in the world, and all but guaranteed him a bust in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Yet as the years passed, the call from St. Augustine never came. The snub really started stinging in 2013, when the Hall enshrined Fred Couples (with one major) and Colin Montgomerie (no majors). The 16-time Tour winner (the British was his last victory on the regular tour) was left thinking, Hey, what about me? Then, last fall, the phone rang. O’Meara was in. “A lot of emotion came over me,” he says. This month, in a ceremony at the University of St. Andrews, a few hundred yards from the Old Course, the Hall will make it official. Joining O’Meara in the class of 2015 are Laura Davies, David Graham and the late A.W. Tillinghast. Golf Magazine visited O’Meara, 58, at his Houston home, where, from his living room couch, the Hall of Famer reflected on his late-career surge, his on-again, off-again friendship with Tiger Woods, and getting “slapped in the face” by the PGA of America.
After being passed over for the Hall of Fame for so many years, how does it feel to finally join the club?
It’s the ultimate honor to be included with the greats of the game. I’m in my 35th year as a professional golfer, and I remember going through that phase of being on that list, the Best Players Who Have Never Won a Major. And then, finally, at 41 years old, in 1998, to break through and birdie the last two holes to win the Masters, and then win the Open Championship later that year. To finally get the call, I was so pleased and so excited — a lot of emotion came over me. Certainly a lot of happiness, but also a bit of sorrow, because my parents are no longer alive to be part of this day with their son.
What do you say to people who think you’re undeserving, or who believe that Ian Woosnam, with his Masters win and 29 European Tour titles, should be inducted before you?
I’ve heard it before. I respect people who give me their honest opinions. But if you look at my career against Woosnam’s, he didn’t win the U.S. Amateur. [O’Meara won it in 1979.] I won the British Open, and he didn’t. It’s touch and go. He won more tournaments on the European Tour than I won on the U.S. tour. But I reckon — and no disrespect to the European Tour or to Ian, because I love Ian; he’s a very fine player and a good friend of mine — that the European Tour 15 or 20 years ago wasn’t as difficult as the PGA Tour. It’s always going to be difficult to judge eras or people’s careers.
Another Hall of Famer, Raymond Floyd, told Golf Magazine in 2013 that “the bar has been lowered. Guys get voted into the Hall of Fame who don’t belong.” Do you agree?
I agree with Ray to a point, but there are so many good players now that I think it’s going to be rare that a player wins 15, 16, 18 times and has two major championships. If you have one set rule of exactly how many tournaments or how many majors you need to be inducted, I’m not sure that that should be set in stone. I think the way they’re doing it now, having Hall of Fame members on [voting] committees, is the right way. I don’t think they’re going to put somebody in there because the player is either more popular or less popular. They’re going to look at the facts.
Did it irritate you that Couples and Monty got in before you, with arguably weaker records?
Yeah. I was disappointed, but I’ve had a lot of disappointments in my life. I was disappointed that I never got the nod to be a Ryder Cup captain. I felt like I let the PGA of America know how interested I was, especially when they went to Ireland [in 2006]. And Tom Lehman got the captaincy over me. Obviously, [the PGA] doesn’t think that I’m qualified enough to be a Ryder Cup captain.
Do you suppose that has anything to do with your suggestion, leading up to the 1999 Ryder Cup, that players should be paid to play?
First of all, I think there was a lot of misleading information out there. I went to [then PGA of America chief executive officer] Jim Awtrey and said, “Listen, I’m hearing rumblings behind the scenes, so I just wanted to say this to you. I’ve played on numerous Ryder Cup teams. I understand that the players don’t get paid. I’m not saying they deserve to be paid or they need to be paid, but what I don’t understand is, if there’s a lot of money being made by this event, which there is, then where’s this money going?” It’s not that I needed to be paid for being on the Ryder Cup team. I got thrown under the bus, which is fine. But I believe what I said was true. When you’re a professional golfer, that’s what you do for a living. Everybody around the event is compensated except for the pro golfers. That just seemed ironic. So I said to Jim, “You might want to address that before it becomes a problem.”
When you put it that way, the issue seems fairly benign.
It was. And then, in 1999, we had a big meeting at Medinah at the PGA Championship. We had all the players in there, and Ben [Crenshaw], who was our Ryder Cup captain, the [Tour] commissioner [Tim Finchem], and Jim Awtrey were there. And there were a lot of slaps in the face toward me. At that PGA, I was a two-time major winner. I was the PGA Tour Player of the Year. I was the PGA of America Player of the Year. And then at Medinah they pair me with a couple of guys who I felt were lesser-known players. Now, I understand that I’m not a big name, or a draw. But the fact that I won two majors, and I don’t get to play with another major championship winner or a player who’s won some tournaments on the PGA Tour, that’s a slap in the face. So maybe [all of that] is why I never got a Ryder Cup captaincy. But I never believed that there was going to be any player — myself included — who wouldn’t play if he didn’t get paid. So when the media made it a “pay for play” controversy, that’s not necessarily what was going on.
Let’s revisit that magical summer of 1998, when you won two majors in three months. Simple question: How did you do it?
I was probably as shocked as anyone. I say that because I remember very distinctly how I felt at Augusta National that week — I wasn’t hitting the ball well, I wasn’t putting that well. My confidence wasn’t very good. I don’t think anybody anticipated that I was going to be challenging to win the Masters, including myself. And I never really felt good all week with my putter.
And yet you drained a tricky, sidehill 20-footer on the 72nd hole to win the green jacket.
When it went in, I was in shock and disbelief. Like, “What the heck just happened?” And then I realized I had won the Masters. I don’t feel I necessarily hit it that great that week. And then when I looked at the stats, I actually had the fewest number of putts [in the field]. And I felt terrible with my putter. It’s crazy. It just goes to show you that to win the Masters, you have to putt well.
What’s your most vivid memory from your British Open win at Birkdale?
I was on the 71st green, a par 5, at 1-over. And I can remember hearing the roars from the 18th hole, when Justin Rose holed his wedge shot. And I could also hear the roars in front of me because Tiger had birdied, like, three of the last five holes to [shoot 66 and] finish at 1-over. Behind me, [leader] Brian Watts had just bogeyed 16 to go back to even par. On No. 17, I had a 14-footer for birdie. As I was lining my putt up, I thought to myself, “Tiger’s probably watching right now, and every time he and I play at home, I make these putts on him. I’m gonna drain this just to tick him off.” That was my mindset over the ball.
You weren’t thinking about winning your second major — you were thinking about irking Tiger?
[Laughs] My thoughts didn’t have anything to do with anything going on in the tournament. I made the putt, and then I parred the last hole. I hit it on the green in two and left my first putt about four feet short. I made that, and then obviously I won the playoff over Brian. But I remember the next day, Tiger was like, “I can’t believe you left that putt on 18 four feet short.” I said, “No, what you can’t believe is that when I was on 17, all I could think about was you watching, and I was gonna make it just to tick you off!”
Give us your favorite Tiger story.
Wow, I have a lot of them. One of my very favorites is from 1998, right after I won at Birkdale. At that time, and for many years, I putted with a Ping Anser 2. I just loved that club. It was my go-to putter. Tiger always wanted to putt with my putter. And every time he hit a putt with it, from anywhere on the green, he would make it. We always laughed about it. He wanted to keep it. I said, “I’m not going to give you the putter. I’m putting with it. But I’ll let you putt with my backup, which is almost exactly like my putter.” So there was a two- or three-month stretch when he was putting with my backup putter. After Birkdale, I came back [to the U.S.] with Tiger on his plane. He told me how ticked he was that he was one shot out of the playoff because, he said, “I would have kicked your butt.” [Laughs] And I said, “Let’s get the Claret Jug out.” He’s holding the jug in his hands, and I said, “T, I gotta tell you two things. This Claret Jug? Your name’s gonna be on that trophy way more than one time. At least my name got on there before yours.” Then he goes, “What’s the second thing?” I said, “You know that Ping Anser 2 putter you’re playing with? Why do you think it’s the backup? Because it always comes up one shot short.” I can’t say what he said, but it was funny. We land in Orlando, and he takes that Ping Anser 2 out of his bag and shoves it into my bag. He never used it again.
You’ve said that you and Tiger don’t talk much anymore. When did you two start to grow apart?
It’s been over the last five or six years, right before his scandal. I moved on to the Champions Tour, and then unfortunately I went through my divorce, and that was a difficult time in my life. I was kind of lost. And then I met [current wife] Meredith, and we fell in love, and I came to live in Houston. I tried to reach out to him and tried to call him [in 2009 when news of Tiger’s sex scandal broke] and I e-mailed him, but I never got hold of him. And he basically went off the radar screen for that period.
Do you miss him?
I do. I miss the time we had together, but our relationship changed. It was just not the same. But Tiger knows that I’d still be there for him. I still text him every so often. He’ll text me back. I love the kid.
Would you say you still consider yourselves friends?
I would. I believe that if I picked up the phone and called him right now or needed a favor, he’d be there for me. Tiger seems healthy again, and he played better at this year’s Masters than most people expected.
Do you think he’ll go on to break Jack’s record of 18 major titles?
That’s so difficult, because he’s the kind of person that if you tell him he can’t do it, that’s his motivating factor — that he will do it. But as every year goes by and it hasn’t happened, I don’t know. Never in my life have I ever bet against Tiger Woods, but winning five more majors to break Jack’s record — I’m not sure that’s going to happen.
You and Tiger both worked with swing doctor Hank Haney. Was it awkward for you when Haney published The Big Miss, his tell-all book on Tiger?
A little bit, because I was the one who put those two guys together. Hank is a great teacher. I believed that Hank could help Tiger. And there was a point when he was under Hank’s tutelage that, no question, Tiger was swinging the club at his best — as good as anybody has ever swung the club. I’ve never read the book. I was in the middle. It’s like a breakup. I’m not faulting [Haney]. I’m just saying, if it was me, I wouldn’t have [written the book].
How is your relationship with Haney today?
Pretty good. I see him once in a while. I wish him well. He’s a wonderful teacher. He had a big impact on making me the player that I was.
Let’s say you’re named golf czar for a day. What’s your first decree?
The biggest problem with the game, which I’ve been saying for years, is the pace of play. It’s just disgusting. For three years, I sat on the [Tour] policy board. I told the commissioner, “Listen, this is my pet peeve. Golf is much too slow. It’s way out of control, and your rules are not good enough.” To fix a problem, you’ve got to have a severe penalty. That’s the only way people change. It’s a joke. People need to play faster, period.
What has the game of golf taught you about life?
How to act, how to behave, how to build character, how to have integrity — all the core values. And as you try to improve, the accountability factor comes into play in your behavior, the work ethic that it takes to become a good player. All those things make you a better human being. No other sport teaches you more about life.
Looking back on your career, would you say you overachieved or underachieved?
I’m not an overconfident person. Fear — the uncertainty of what lies ahead — is a major [motivational] factor for me, so I’m always trying to prove myself. I’m still trying to get better at things. So I didn’t underachieve, but I didn’t overachieve either. I’d say I’m in the middle of the road — the sweet spot. And that’s not a bad place to be.