The chubby guy did it again. This time it happened at the
Wentworth Club in posh Virginia Water, England, just south of
London in the first all-American final of the World Match Play
Championship since Hale Irwin beat Al Geiberger in 1975. For the
umpteenth time since Tiger Woods moved in near Mark O'Meara's
place in Isleworth, a gated, guarded, garish enclave in Orlando,
the wise old pro got the better of his talented young neighbor.
O'Meara had already outdueled Woods at the 1997 AT&T Pebble
Beach National Pro-Am and in this year's British Open at Royal
Birkdale. Now, as they got ready for Sunday's 36-hole final at
Wentworth, Woods had to be thinking of Isleworth, where he and
O'Meara gird themselves in Bermuda shorts and wage one-on-one
battles that keep them sharp for the Tour wars. Woods may be the
most gifted golfer on Earth, but those informal matches often
end with the stronger player pulling out his wallet and wailing,
"How do you always beat me?"
Woods had been hacking his way around England since his plane
landed two weeks earlier. First, John Daly had a better record
in the Dunhill Cup in St. Andrews, where Woods, coughing and
spitting with the flu, missed a four-foot putt on the final hole
to lose to Santiago Luna of Spain in the semifinals, knocking
the U.S. trio of Daly, O'Meara and Woods out of the tournament.
At Wentworth, Woods was stunned to be heckled in what he called
"shocking, personal" terms by British galleries. Trouble seems
to follow Woods like the security guards who dog his steps these
days. He recently dumped his agent, Hughes Norton of IMG, the
man Woods used to call his "ambassador of Quan." Norton, who has
known Woods since the latter was 14 and had arranged more than
$120 million in endorsements for him, became expendable when
Woods, after a talk with another IMG client, O'Meara, decided
that Norton was burdening him with too many commitments.
"Hughes failed to understand Tiger's personal growth," said Earl
Woods, Tiger's father. "For Hughes the dollar is almighty. For
Tiger, money is not important." Alastair Johnston, head of IMG's
golf division, will temporarily handle Woods's business affairs.
"I think we'll see a new Tiger," Earl Woods said.
First, though, we saw some other familiar faces. There was the
pink mug of Colin Montgomerie, who of course found something to
go off on. Montgomerie, seeded fifth in the 12-man World Match
Play, griped that he wasn't getting a first-round bye like
O'Meara, Woods, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. "A bye means a lot in
this event," said Monty, who proved it by going bye-bye when he
dropped nine of the last 13 holes of a quarterfinal loss to
O'Meara. PGA winner Singh, the defending champ, rolled to an
11-up lead on Patrik Sjoland of Sweden after only 21 holes.
Singh coasted to a 7-and-6 victory and said, "I have a good
chance of going all the way." In Saturday's semis, however,
O'Meara made nine birdies before lunch and erased Singh in
record fashion, 11 and 10.
After weathering a 37-hole win over Ian Woosnam and whipping Lee
Westwood 5 and 4 to win the W bracket, Woods seemed poised to
reassert himself as No. 1 in reality as well as in the World
Ranking. On Sunday morning he grabbed a quick 3-up lead on
O'Meara. Woods looked fierce, not neighborly. At the 11th hole
he refused to concede an 18-inch putt. "I'll remember that,"
said a smiling O'Meara, who drew cheers from the crowd by making
a show of measuring the gimme with the shaft of his putter.
Still, most of those cheering O'Mearans probably thought Tiger
would feast by sundown. You can't see the two of them together
without thinking that the older man looks like Woods's
accountant, and O'Meara knows it. This year's Masters and
British Open champ never forgets that for all his achievements,
he still isn't a superstar. If he needed a reminder, he got it
on Sunday at lunch. "I was 3 down after the first 18," he said.
"I came into the clubhouse and heard somebody say, 'Tiger Woods
has a large lead.' I thought, No, that's not a large lead. I can
go out there and turn the tide."
O'Meara birdied four of the first seven holes of the second 18,
and on the par-5 12th, Woods, now leading by only one, wrapped
his arms around his neighbor and said, "Whether I win or you
win, I want to tell you it's been a heck of a match. I'm proud
to be playing against you, and with you." O'Meara responded by
rifling a two-iron that hit the flagstick and almost dropped
into the hole for a double eagle. He settled for a tap-in eagle
to even the match.
With three holes left, O'Meara drove into a grove at the par-4
16th. His half-swing punch shot from the trees found a greenside
bunker. Now Woods, lying 2, stood over a 10-footer for birdie
while O'Meara, also lying 2, studied his lie in the trap. The
next few minutes were the season in microcosm. O'Meara blasted
to about 10 feet and rolled in his par-saving putt. Woods,
needing his putt to win the hole, went at it too hard. The ball
slipped four feet past. "I'd have liked to give him that one,"
O'Meara said, "because he's my friend. But I know damn well he'd
make me putt it."
Just as he did at St. Andrews, and just as he has done
repeatedly during a year that featured several hideous
four-putts, Woods missed the four-footer. "Pushed it," he said
later. One down at the final hole, Woods was looking over yet
another 10-foot putt for birdie. That's when O'Meara knocked in
a 15-footer from the fringe to win the title, $290,000 and
another hug from the second-best player at Isleworth.
Woods was a good loser. Match play was "exciting," he said. "It
wears you out emotionally, but the ebb and flow is tremendous--a
special thing that can only happen when you play 36." Of
O'Meara, he said, "Mark hasn't gotten credit for being as good
as he is. He's a great player, and now he's getting his due."
Finally the oldest winner in World Match Play history rose to
take questions. O'Meara spoke of the long day's battle among
friends, and of the tiger in him. "I relish the advantage when
the heat is on." Then, surprisingly, he delivered what sounded
like a valedictory for one of the most unexpected seasons in
"When I look back on growing up in Southern California," he
said, "starting the game with not a lot of money or a lot of
certainty, being here now at 41--it's a dream. I could never hit
a golf ball like Tiger Woods does. He's got more shots than I
have. He's got a lot more power; sometimes more imagination. But
I might have a little bit more wisdom. I might have a little
more patience. Now I have won tournaments, had a dream year, and
whatever happens in the future, I've been fortunate in my life.
I'm proud of myself because I kept improving."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: STEPHEN MUNDAY/ALLSPORT Great escape O'Meara played catchup for most of the final, but in the end turned the tables on Tiger(opposite, left). [Mark O'Meara hitting bunker shot; Tiger Woods celebrating with Mark O'Meara]
"I could never hit a golf ball like Tiger Woods does," said
O'Meara. "But I might have a little bit more wisdom."