A week ago, Mark O’Meara was walking the green mile at Augusta, the walk that every Masters champion must one day make. The one most never see coming when they’re young.
A last time through the tunnel of trees at No. 18, around the corner and up the hill to the final tilting green.
The truth was known mostly just to him, that at 61 he no longer could hit it long enough to scare Augusta National in the least. This was a different kind of champion’s goodbye, which in typical O’Meara fashion, was as modest as a whisper in church.
O’Meara was speaking Thursday 160 miles west from his hushed farewell tour, at TPC Sugarloaf, where he’s playing this weekend at the Mitsubishi Classic. Having processed the emotions of the preceding week, he still wasn’t making much of a big deal of it all.
It’s not that people weren’t encouraging O’Meara to get word out in advance that he was playing his final Masters, as have other past champions. Just to alert the world in case anyone wanted to show appreciation, like any other invitation to a retirement party.
“(Ben) Crenshaw called and some of the members at the club said, ‘Hey, let us know if it’s your last one,” O’Meara said.
“I’m like, look, I’m not Tom Watson, I’m Mark O’Meara. I’m a guy who made a putt in 1998, 20 years ago, to win the Masters. I just didn’t want to make it a big deal. I just wanted to play and when I got done say this is it.”
When O’Meara made the walk up 18 on a spring Sunday 20 years ago, he was facing a 20-foot birdie putt to win the Masters. “When I walked up to the green I remember I needed some water badly because my mouth was so dry. I didn’t get any water,” O’Meara said.
He had birdied No. 17 to pull into a tie with David Duval, already in and awaiting a possible playoff inside one of the Augusta National cabins. “Don’t worry, David,” club chairman Jack Stephens told him, “nobody ever makes that putt.”
O’Meara made the putt. And won what would be the first of two majors that year – the other the British Open at Royal Birkdale. Tiger Woods, O’Meara’s buddy, helped him into his green jacket. Just about a perfect moment.
Having that moment was more than he ever expected, so why, O’Meara figured, would he ever need to take another bow 20 years later? And he wasn’t about to blubber over the passage of time – everyone gets older, right?
Nor would there be any need to hit him over the head to get him off his standing tee time at Augusta National. At his last Masters – just three years after finishing 2 under, tied for 22nd – O’Meara shot 78-81-adios.
“Some of my friends, even my wife, were like, you know, how do you know? You might want to play another year. I’m like, I know. I know,” O’Meara said.
O’Meara is relatively young compared with other Masters champions who have opted out. Ben Crenshaw was 63 at the end of his competitive days in 2015 (and clearly done as his scores of 91-85 attested). Gary Player, a stubborn cuss, was 73. Jack Nicklaus was 65, Arnold Palmer 74. It’s just no country for old men.
Others at the Mitsubishi Classic have experienced the last Masters walk. Tom Watson was 66 when he called it quits in 2016, and talked O’Meara through it early last week on the practice range.
Winning the par-3 contest last Wednesday, playing with Player and Nicklaus, Watson also could speak to the fact that there is life after no longer playing the big course on the other side of the clubhouse. “You look up at the scoreboard (on the par-3 course), and yeah, we’re actually trying to win the par 3 at age 82 (Player), 78 (Nicklaus) and 68,” Watson said.
Still others on site this week are facing the inevitable. “Depends how I feel,” Vijay Singh, 55, said, when asked if he’ll play next year. He made the Masters cut this year, and finished 7 over.
“If I feel like I can contend, then I’ll probably play. I’m not going to go up and just make numbers,” he said.
O’Meara rode off into the Masters mists last week, and back home to Texas to practice a little. He has no top-20 finishes on the over-50 Tour yet this year – and his only two victories out here date to 2010.
“I’d give myself a B-minus on my game right now,” he said. “I think to win, you’ve got to be better.”
And he remains a resource for the occasional updated Tiger Woods projection. “I think he’ll win again,” he said. “Whether he wins a major or not, I don’t see why not if he feels good and he hits the ball with the speed he’s got.”
Flash to to a year from now. No longer playing, O’Meara figures to transition happily to the Masters wallpaper, sitting at the champions dinner, making his corporate rounds, playing the par 3 if the mood suits. He could ask for nothing more.
“A small, small part of it still,” as he puts it, naturally.
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