OMeara Fishing for a Return to Form

By Mercer BaggsFebruary 9, 2005, 5:00 pm
2005 AT&T Pebble Bch Pro-AmIn 1998, Mark OMeara won the Masters ' his first ever major victory in 18 years of professional golf. Three months later, he won the British Open. Because of both, he was voted as PGA Tour player of the year.
In 1998, Mark OMeara had reached the pinnacle of his golfing career. Things couldnt get any better. And, in many ways, he knew it.
I felt like I reached an area in my life where I never thought Id be, OMeara said Tuesday at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Sometimes when you do that, for whatever reason you tend to slide down.
It was a steady decline for the then 41-year-old. He dropped from seventh on the money list in 98 to 45th in 99. He then went to 112th, and then 116th, and back to 97th. In 2003, he fell all the way to 143rd in earnings. It marked the first time he had ever failed to finish inside of the all-exempt top 125. And it was awfully bad timing, considering his five-year exemption from his major victories had hit their expiration date.
OMeara used a one-time exemption as a member of the tours top 25 all-time money winners in order to receive his 2004 card. He was only able to compete in 17 events, however, due to a hand injury and again missed the 125 cut, ending 10 spots higher.
But, all-in-all, last year was a moderate success ' particularly when compared to its most recent predecessors.
OMeara won the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour ' an event that featured the likes of Tiger Woods and Ernie Els. He did so with the aid of a revised putting grip he dubbed 'The Saw' . That win, combined with a revival in his putting stroke, helped add a little fuel to his competitive fire ' one that was in danger of being extinguished.
Last year was a big year, because I felt like I really wanted to play again, he said. Now, can I compete at the level that I used to compete at? Maybe not. But the win in Dubai was big because there were a lot of good players entered, and I won again. That was a big confidence booster.
Ideally, OMeara would have liked to have capitalized on that early-season momentum (he won Dubai in March) and won again on the PGA Tour (which he hasn't done since '98). It didnt happen. And he was denied any opportunity of making a late surge to keep his card when he broke a small bone in his left palm in September at the Deutsche Bank Championship.
He thought that he could heal the injury with rest. That, too, didnt happen. And surgery was the only option.
This will mark Marks third event of the 2005 season. Hes playing on a Minor Medical exemption, meaning he has eight events to earn $79,396 (when added to last year's total, equal to No. 125 on the 2004 money list). If he does that, hell earn Major Medical status, which will greatly enhance his chances of getting into tournaments. If not, then hell have to pull a Blanche DeBois and rely on the kindness of (not-so) strangers.
Right now, Im feeling pretty good, said OMeara. Its not 100 percent, but its better.
Thus far, OMeara has played in two events, making one cut and collecting $9,552. But, if ever there was an opportunity to pick up some much needed cash, it comes this week at Pebble Beach, where OMeara has won five times.
I take a lot of pride when I look at the rock there on the first tee and (see) the amount of times Ive had success here, he said. Theres a lot of fond memories.
OMeara is once again ' he has been since 1997, when he turned 40 ' on the Hall of Fame ballot. Hes won 16 times on the PGA Tour, including the aforementioned majors. He has eight international victories. Hes a five-time Ryder Cup team member and a two-time participant in the Presidents Cup.
Those are overly impressive, if not Hall of Fame, numbers. The kind of numbers that when one retires, he can do so in peace, with positive reflection.
But OMeara isnt about to give up his golfing gig just yet. He thought about it a few years ago, when he considered giving television a shot. Then he came to his senses ' and it had little to do with his level of interest in the game.
Some people, in the middle of their lives, quit their jobs in order to focus on the things they really love to do. OMeara, in his own way, kept his so he could do the same.
Fishing was probably a lot of the reason I stayed with the golf. I knew I loved to fly fish, OMeara said. If I did a TV job, all of a sudden Id be working for someone else. I couldn't pick up the phone and tell (CBS Sports President) Sean McManus: 'Hey, the hatch is coming off in Provo. I cant make it to TV; I have to try and catch a few trout.'
OMeara wont be picking his tournament sites, however, based solely on the population of steelhead in the area ' at least not for the most part. He says that he has rededicated himself to his profession; and that he is ready to at least try and play like the Mark OMeara of old, not an old Mark OMeara.
That recently rediscovered passion is probably one of the reasons he feels a little burned by the PGA of America.
OMeara, of Irish descent, was among the favorites to be named as the 2006 Ryder Cup captain in Dublin. Instead, the honor went to Tom Lehman.
The PGA of America knew that I was very, very interested in the job, he said. The last two and a half years I lobbied pretty hard. I think the media knows that. I wanted the job. I didnt get it. Was I disappointed? Yeah, to be honest with you. But I congratulated Tom down in San Diego.
I think I would have done a good job, you know, I really do, he added. The only reason I wanted it was because it was in Ireland, because I have a tremendous respect for Ireland. I go to Ireland two times a year. I mean, I love the place. I think they love me. It just didnt work out.
Im not quite sure what their criteria is in how they pick their captains. If they go by record, certainly I would have thought I would have been the leading candidate.
Lehman has 11 fewer tour victories, three fewer Ryder Cup appearances, and one fewer major trophy than OMeara. But Lehman also had one less very public beef with the PGA of America.
Prior to the 1999 Ryder Cup, OMeara was one of the most notable players who questioned the PGA of Americas allocation of the tens of millions of dollars earned due to the biennial event.
At the time, players received nothing for playing in the Matches. Now, because of OMearas and others actions, each U.S. team member gets to donate $200,000 to charity.
In 97, 98, I approached the (PGA of America), I explained to them what was going to happen. I saw it all coming down the pipeline, OMeara said. And it became a nightmare and became an unfortunate situation for the players. It became an unfortunate situation for the PGA of America and the event.
Listen, everybody says its not about money, but life is about money, OMeara added. And not one player, myself included, threatened to not play in the Ryder Cup if we didnt get paid a dime. Even though it was written up as a controversy, thats not really the case. The case was, hey, we want to know whats going on, and thats not an unfair question.'
And does he think the incident affected his chances of being the next Ryder Cup captain?
Whether my reputation took a hit or not, whether that had a basis on whether they picked me or didnt pick me as a Ryder Cup captain, thats their choice,' he said. 'But I believe it was not (the case). Thats what they said, too. So well just move on.
Thats O'Meara's mindset for this season. After roughly six rough years with a draining desire, hes ready to move on.
Who knows, maybe O'Meara could find a little magic and actually make the team as a player. That, of course, is less likely than likely.
This is the more likely scenario: 'I'll probably be a steelhead fisher(man) that week somewhere on the west coast of the United States,' O'Meara said. 'It's not the end of the world.'
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