SOUTHPORT, England – The best golfers in the world struggled around Royal Birkdale on Friday, but Mark O’Meara thought it was more of a walk in the park. At least, that’s what his second-round score in the British Open indicated.
O’Meara shot even-par 70 in stormy conditions, showing the guile and experience that he used in winning the 1998 Claret Jug at one of the most difficult courses in the Open rota.
It was an appropriate ending for a former champion, who recorded one of only 15 rounds of par or better. O’Meara, 60, whose first-round 81 on Thursday was marred by an out-of-bounds tee shot on the opening shot of the tournament, has played his final Open. The R&A mandates that age 60 is the cutoff for champion exemptions.
“I know there's three other majors, but I truly believe that the Open Championship is the top of the list in my book,” O’Meara said, “and the reason is because of what you witnessed today. The conditions the last two days are changing; they're ever-changing around here. Look, I’m not Tom Watson; I'm not Jack Nicklaus; I'm not Arnold Palmer. I'm just a guy who in ’98 was lucky to win this great championship and take the Claret Jug and be proclaimed ‘champion golfer of the year.’ ”
During his heyday, O’Meara played Royal Birkdale twice. The first time was in 1991, when he co-led going into the final round and was paired with eventual winner Ian Baker-Finch. Seven years later, O’Meara shot a final-round 68 and won a four-hole aggregate playoff against Brian Watts.
During those eight rounds, O’Meara totaled 5 under, plus 1 under in the ’98 playoff.
“[There] was a little bit of life in the old dog, but I'll miss it,” O’Meara said. “I'll miss this championship, but I'll always watch it. I'll always be interested and intrigued on what young players do around links golf, and we're going to see some interesting play over the next two days.”
This was the 31st Open for O’Meara, a World Golf Hall of Fame inductee whose 16 PGA Tour victories include the 1998 Masters. As he thought back over his career, he recalled his first major overseas, at Royal St. George’s in 1981, when Bill Rogers won by four shots over Bernhard Langer. O’Meara tied for 47th, his first of 24 made cuts, but the four days of competition were secondary.
“I played a practice round with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros, so here's this young whippersnapper or whatever, I'm playing with these three legends,” O’Meara said. “It's a little intimidating; let's face it.
“I just remember on the first tee that we were going to play for, I don't remember, 20 bucks or 25 pounds or whatever. I don't have any money, and I remember both Gary and Seve giving Jack the needle. ‘Listen, Jack, we're going to pay today,’ ” O’Meara said, laughing. “ ‘Because whenever you lose, we don't see you. No matter what happens today, somebody is going to get paid.’
“And I was like, I hope I don't lose too much. I don't have that much money. But I think Jack and I actually won that day.”
It would be only the first of many paydays at the British Open for O’Meara.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli