New grip, new life for O'Meara

Mark O'Meara never gave up, but he did wonder.

Long regarded as one of the game's best putters, he had gone too long watching the ball avoid the hole. Experience that long enough, and anyone's faith would be tested.

Now, "sawing'' is believing for O'Meara.

Using a new putting stroke that he calls "The Saw" -- a cousin of other homemade concoctions such as "The Claw'' -- O'Meara putted his way to victory over the weekend at the Dubai Desert Classic.

The jokes about going along for the ride to Dubai on Tiger Woods' plane can cease. O'Meara beat Woods by five strokes.

Not bad for a graying, balding, 47-year-old golfer who had not won in nearly six years and who ranked 140th in the putting on the PGA Tour last year.

"You always wonder sometimes when you're battling, you haven't won and your confidence is low, if you just keep practicing and keep plugging away, maybe you'll have that chance again,'' O'Meara said after his victory on Sunday. "And this week, fortunately, I had the chance. There's always a little bit of doubt in anybody's mind ...''

Of course there was doubt. O'Meara saw a bunch of 40-somethings win last year. Vijay Singh and Kenny Perry had career seasons. Craig Stadler won at age 50. Peter Jacobsen won at 49.

Meanwhile, O'Meara was falling out of the top 125 money winners for the first in his career, which dated to 1981. A two-time major champion and 16-time PGA Tour winner, O'Meara suffered through his worst season, finishing 143rd on the money list with $388,349.

His exemption this year on the PGA Tour? A last resort, top 25 standing on the all-time PGA Tour money list with more than $13 million.

His reason for an invite to Dubai? Woods -- at least that's what we can assume. Why else would the PGA European Tour event want O'Meara, save for the fact that he'd be hitching a ride home across the Atlantic on TWA -- "Tiger Woods Airlines,'' as O'Meara calls it.

O'Meara admits that 2003 was a battle and that he suffered with the "yips.'' But late in the year, teacher Hank Haney showed him a variation of the "claw" putting grip used by players such as Chris DiMarco and Mark Calcavecchia while O'Meara was preparing for the Father-Son Challenge.

"I'm thinking, I don't know if I can go with it,'' O'Meara said. "But all of a sudden, I had no yip in my stroke at all. I went with it that week and I never had one putt where I had any kind of yip in there. So I thought, you know what, I'm going to go with this.''

O'Meara showed signs of progress in his West Coast tournaments. He missed a couple of cuts, but he attributed that more to a back problem than putting woes. He tied for 16th at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

"My putting was better, my driving accuracy was better,'' he said. "If you feel like you can make the putts, it just frees up the rest of your game.''

O'Meara places his left hand on the putter in a conventional manner. His right hand, however, barely touches the club. It, in essence, pinches the shaft between the thumb and three fingers.

"What it's done is kind of locked my wrist in,'' O'Meara said. "So with your wrist like that, if you were sawing wood, (in a) back and forth motion, kind of locked in. So your wrist has a lot of hinge.''

O'Meara said before his victory on Sunday that he felt more comfortable with this putting stroke than the one that won the 1998 Masters -- where he made an 18-foot birdie putt on the final green to win by a stroke.

"It really came to fruition at the Bob Hope (in January), because every putt I hit, I hit solid,'' he said. "And the way the ball would come off the putter is so much different. I've gone back sometimes, I'll tap in some short putts with my old grip. I still feel when I hit my putts this way, I do so much better.''

But winning again? Even O'Meara would have told you that was a reach as recently as 10 days ago, when his back was killing him. Last year, he had just a single top-10 finish on the PGA Tour, a tie for eighth at the Masters. Since 1998, when he won the Masters and British Open and tied for fourth at the PGA Championship, O'Meara had just eight top 10s.

And it's not like there were a bunch of pushovers at Dubai. In addition to Woods, the tournament had Ernie Els, Darren Clarke, Thomas Bjorn and Colin Montgomerie. O'Meara, who was ranked 201st in the world heading into the tournament, jumped all the way to 80th on Monday.

Now the U.S. Open and PGA Championship -- tournaments where his exemption had expired -- are attainable goals.

"In the last year, Mark has been hitting it pretty good,'' Woods said. "He just didn't make any putts. Now he's starting to make some putts and the tide has turned around.''

And suddenly, O'Meara appears to be a bit more than a travel companion for the best player in the world.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.