Mark O'Meara and the plight of Tiger
GULLANE, Scotland -- Once again, Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara are in the same Open Championship field. But unlike the old days, when they were golf's version of a buddy movie, their once-close relationship has atrophied over the years.
Things change. Time, circumstances and geography change. There's nothing sinister about it.
Woods and O'Meara used to cross the pond early for pre-Open Championship fishing trips together. They shared rental houses together. They could talk and know the trust wouldn't be betrayed.
It is still that way. The difference is, they don't talk that much anymore.
Woods was good for O'Meara and especially good for O'Meara's golf game. O'Meara was on the wrong side of 40 when he won his first major -- the 1998 Masters -- and then his second -- the 1998 Open Championship -- in a four-month span.
For this, O'Meara has always been quick to credit Woods for energizing his game and toughening him up. O'Meara had skills, but he didn't have what Woods had: an utter and absolute belief that he could win anywhere, anytime. Through countless betting rounds, practice rounds and real rounds, O'Meara learned from Woods. It was better golf through osmosis.
But O'Meara was good for Woods too, and in ways that aren't as quantifiable. Older by 19 years, he gave Woods perspective and context. He gave Woods loyalty, and more importantly, he gave him honesty.
O'Meara wasn't part of the Woods financial food chain. He wasn't Nike. He wasn't squirreling away notes for a book. He didn't begin every sentence with "Yes, Tiger, you're right."
O'Meara told Woods what he thought and why he thought it. There was no governor switch on his opinions, and better yet, there was no agenda, other than wanting the best for his friend. Woods might not have always liked what he heard, but he knew the words came from the heart.
Woods and O'Meara shared a rental house the week of the 2002 Open Championship at Muirfield. They ate together. Drove to the course together. Played practice rounds together. And were paired together for Saturday's third round.
Earlier in the week, Woods had been summoned to the media center for his usual pre-tournament press session. O'Meara told him he would meet Woods at their courtesy car after the news conference. To kill the time, O'Meara worked on his putting at the practice green.
"After I was done putting, there were people standing at the side of the green and they asked for my autograph," says O'Meara. "And there was this little girl that had a visor, so I signed her autograph and then I was on to the next person. I remember distinctly the young lady showed it to her mom and her mom goes, 'Oh, look, honey, isn't that nice, you got Tiger Woods' best friend's autograph.'"
During the drive to the rental house, O'Meara told Woods about the little girl and the mother. Woods laughed and said, "I can fix that for you."
"Yeah?" said O'Meara. "How?"
"Play better," said Woods.
That was the same year that Woods had won the Masters and the U.S. Open and was heavily favored to win at Muirfield to keep his Grand Slam dream alive. Then on Saturday, with Woods only two shots out of the lead, came the Scottish equivalent of nor'easter.
"Typical Southern California day," says Woods sarcastically. "Sunny. You know, about 75 degrees. Short sleeves."
More like 25 mph gusts with driving rain and a 38-degree wind-chill factor.
"Ten being the worst, it was a 10," says Scott Hoch, who finished tied for eighth that year. "It was about the nastiest place to play golf in."
"The rain started pelting you like somebody was hitting you with an ice cone," says O'Meara.
Woods shot 81 that day, his worst round as a professional. It was like watching Miss Utah sputter on about "create education better."
Late in the round, when Woods was 11-over-par for the day, O'Meara caught up to him as they were walking to the 16th tee box.
"Tiger, I gotta tell you something," O'Meara said to him. "I know you about as well as anybody knows you, and you know that I think you are the greatest player that has ever played the game ... but in saying that, I think you have arrived today."
Woods was incredulous. He wasn't going to win the Open Championship. He wasn't going to complete the Grand Slam.
"I'm going to go for like 82 today, bro," he said.
But O'Meara wasn't talking about history; he was talking about professional pride. Woods had grinded on every shot. His anger had flared a time or two, but nothing more. He had played dreadfully in dreadful conditions, but he had competed. That's no small thing.
"There is something about Tiger Woods: There is no quit in him -- zero," says O'Meara. "I understand injuries. I understand personal issues. I get all of that. But that guy right there is the ultimate competitor."
On the drive home that day, Woods told O'Meara that he already had a plan for Sunday's round. He said he was going to shoot 65 and get back to even-par for the tournament.
O'Meara was on the range that Sunday when he noticed Woods was already 4-under on the front nine. He turned to his caddie and said, "See? There you go. That's typical Tiger Woods. Never give up."
Woods shot 65 and got to even-par but -- and O'Meara loves reminding everyone of this -- finished one stroke behind O'Meara.
But here's also what sticks with O'Meara from that 2002 Open Championship: When Woods recorded his one and only birdie of Saturday's round (on the par-5 17th), he raised his arms in mock joy, bowed dramatically to the gallery and broke into a wide grin as he fist-bumped O'Meara. It was a pure, spontaneous moment that revealed a side of Woods rarely seen.
"I would like to see more of that out of him," says O'Meara. "I have always told him -- and I know I am not around him very much anymore -- but I believe humility is a good thing. He has been an unbelievable champion, and there are times where I think you've got to take that with a grain of salt and understand that there is going to be a little sting there. Be a little light-hearted, go a little easier on yourself, and you know what, you'll turn the corner a lot quicker."
So much has changed from 2002. Both O'Meara and Woods have been through painful divorces. O'Meara now plays primarily on the Champions Tour, while Woods continues to chase Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 career majors. Woods has been stuck on 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open win.
"I know that the last five years have been a tough ride for him and that every year that goes by gets a little difficult for him," says O'Meara. "There is no reason why he can't [win another major]. I think that he has got all the tools to do it. I think he has got the mental toughness to do it.
"With his time away from the game and then the injuries and personal difficulties in his life, there might have been a pretty big gap between Tiger Woods and the rest of the players in golf, [but] that gap has certainly narrowed."
Narrowed, but not disappeared. O'Meara knows all things are possible with Woods. He has seen the greatness in Woods the golfer -- and still sees it. And he also has witnessed Woods' goodness and his flaws.
They are in the same Open Championship field this week, but it isn't like the old days. Life moves on -- and that's OK, says O'Meara, who still roots hard for Woods and, on occasion, worries about him too.
"But I felt privileged, like I have always said, [to have had] my time with him," says O'Meara.
Spoken like a true friend.