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Every U.S. Ryder Cup team has a captain appointed by the PGA of
America and a leader anointed by his teammates. The latter may
be the more critical choice. Before the matches, when
organization counts, the captain's job is the most important.
Once the competition begins, though, it's crucial that the
players have one of their own to lean on, a person they believe
in and can count on when the heat's turned up between the ropes.
Paul Azinger (1991), Fred Couples ('93) and Corey Pavin ('95)
have filled the role in the past, but Azinger and Pavin won't be
around Sept. 26-28 at Valderrama in Sotogrande, Spain, and
Couples isn't the player he was. The job is open, and who will
seize it has been a topic of conversation on Tour. One candidate
is obvious. "Maybe Tiger," says Azinger.

Perhaps the task will fall to Woods someday, but not this year.
The position is usually reserved for a veteran, and no one on
the team, besides Couples, has more experience than Mark
O'Meara, who not only has played in more Ryder Cups (three:
1985, '89 and '91) than anyone else who qualified for the squad,
but at 40 is also one of the senior men on the U.S. side.
O'Meara has all the credentials for leadership. He has been an
impressively consistent performer almost from the moment he
joined the Tour in 1981, winning 14 times--including a record
five times at Pebble Beach--and finishing out of the top 30 on
the money list only twice in the last 13 seasons. More
important, he has played some of his best golf over the past 2
1/2 years. This season he has won twice: at Pebble, where he
held off Woods, and at the Buick Invitational. O'Meara has also
been successful at match play. He won the 1979 U.S. Amateur,
blistering John Cook 8 and 7 in the final, and paced the
victorious U.S. team with a 5-0 record in last year's Presidents

Take us to your leader? O'Meara would seem to be the logical
choice, except for two things: He's probably less enthused about
going to Valderrama than any other player on either side, and he
has a lousy record in the Ryder Cup (2-5-1, including 0-3 in
singles). "He's not the kind of guy who's motivated to get on
the Ryder Cup team," says Azinger, who with O'Meara as a partner
beat Nick Faldo and David Gilford 7 and 6 in a foursomes match
in 1991 at Kiawah Island. "He doesn't enjoy going to the dinners
and all that. He would probably want to be on the team more if
they didn't have the dinners."

Says Payne Stewart, who was a teammate of O'Meara's on the 1989
and '91 teams, "It's a stressed-out week--a severely
stressed-out week," and then adds, "Some guys don't like to deal
with that."

There's no question that the Ryder Cup has become an ordeal for
the players. After practice rounds, meetings, interviews and
official functions, they have maybe five waking hours to
themselves during the week. "Let me ask you a question," O'Meara
says. "There's a champions' dinner after the matches. If you've
lost, would you want to go to a victory dinner?"

O'Meara has experienced the gamut of Ryder Cup emotions--he has
been on teams that have lost ('85), tied ('89) and won
('91)--but has had a hard time getting fired up about the event.
After Tom Kite was named captain of this year's team, he asked
O'Meara about this ambivalence. "Tom said, 'Look, I know you
haven't been the biggest fan of the Ryder Cup,'" says O'Meara.
"I said, 'Well, I've got to be truthful. When we get to
Valderrama, I'm going to do whatever it takes for our team to
win. If I'm on my game, I'll want to be out there every match.
If I'm not, I'll be the first to admit that somebody else should
play.' Honesty is the key to playing on a team."

He means it. In '91, after O'Meara and Azinger had routed Faldo
and Gilford on Saturday morning, O'Meara surprised his teammates
by benching himself for the afternoon session, saying his back
was bothering him. He watched as the U.S. lost three of the four
matches and halved the other. If that makes him a reluctant
warrior, so be it.

O'Meara has always appeared to be uncomfortable in the
spotlight. In 1984, when he was 27, O'Meara had nine top-three
finishes on Tour, yet seemed relieved to end up second on the
money list, not first, where he would be a target for the other
players. Today he would much rather spend time at home in
Orlando with wife Alicia, daughter Michelle, 10, and son Shaun
Robert, 8, than face the intense pressure of the Ryder Cup.

That's why it was surprising that O'Meara was among the six
players who accepted Kite's invitation to stop off in Spain on
the way to July's British Open and play practice rounds at
Valderrama. "The competition is as keen as it can get," O'Meara
says. "I want our players to understand that all you can do is
give it your all. If you don't come out on top, you're not a bad
person. Unfortunately, players on both sides have been lambasted
in the press for losing matches. I don't think that's fair. You
win or lose as a team. I mean, the players aren't getting paid,
and a lot of people are paying a lot of money to watch."

That's a point that has gotten O'Meara into trouble with the
fans, although privately most of his teammates agree with him.
For years O'Meara has maintained that professional golfers
should always be paid to play when they're the show. In the
Ryder Cup, only the players' accommodations, apparel and
expenses are taken care of. Many players equate the arrangement
to college sports, in which athletes make millions for their
schools in exchange for scholarships that, by comparison, are
trifling. The Ryder Cup has become a huge moneymaker for the
U.S. and British PGAs--the TV deal alone brings in a reported
$10 million per event--but a multimillionaire golfer can't
complain without sounding greedy. "I wish I could tell you
exactly what I think of the Ryder Cup, but I won't," O'Meara
says. "When my career is over, I can say I was on four Ryder Cup
teams. That's an honor, I guess."

O'Meara's record in the Ryder Cup helps explain his attitude
toward the competition. He was 1-2 as a rookie in '85, losing in
singles to Howard Clark, when the U.S. was stunned 16 1/2-11 1/2
at the Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England--the first time the
Americans had lost in 28 years. "My first one was overwhelming,"
O'Meara says. "I was pretty nervous." In '89, when Europe
retained the Cup by tying the U.S., again at the Belfry, O'Meara
and Tom Watson were hammered 6 and 5 by Seve Ballesteros and
Jose Maria Olazabal in a four-ball match on the first day, and
O'Meara didn't play again until losing his singles match to Mark
James, 3 and 2. "In a nutshell, I didn't enjoy the first two
because I didn't play well and because we didn't win," O'Meara

He has better memories of the '91 match at Kiawah, the so-called
War by the Shore won 14 1/2-13 1/2 by the U.S. O'Meara and Lanny
Wadkins held a one-up lead over Sam Torrance and David Feherty
in their Day 1 four-ball match when they came to the 17th hole,
a dangerous par-3. "They had the honor, and Torrance hit it
stiff to within two or three feet," Wadkins says. "Mark and I
both hit it on top of him. That was big--three shots inside six
feet was pretty stout. Mark putted first and made it, but we let
them out of the bag at 18 [and halved the match]." O'Meara hit
an errant drive on the 18th and couldn't make par. Wadkins
reached the fringe in two but needed three more shots to get
down. "They won the hole with a par, which should never happen
in best ball," Wadkins says, shaking his head. After winning
with Azinger the next day, O'Meara lost in singles on Sunday to
Paul Broadhurst, 3 and 1.

Feherty says O'Meara should be a key player for the U.S. team.
"He does everything so well--he has the short game, drives it
beautifully and never gets flustered," says Feherty, now a
commentator for CBS. "If he putts well, he's almost impossible
to beat. He's a go-to guy. I'm not sure he's had the chance to
show that in a Ryder Cup. The ax has never fallen on his group.
If it did, I suspect he would rise to the occasion."

Is he a leader, too? He'll get a chance to answer that question
at Valderrama.


COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CANNON/ALLSPORT O'Meara had a lousy team experience as a Ryder Cup rookie (above left, with Lee Trevino), but at the Presidents Cup in '96 he had a blast (second from left). [Mark O'Meara and Lee Trevino]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN [See caption above--Mark O'Meara and others celebrating]