- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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When the Open Championship was held at Royal Birkdale in 1991, Mark O'Meara played in the final pairing, losing to winner Ian Baker-Finch by 3 strokes. Seven years later, O'Meara drew on that experience, returning to the venue to claim his first and only Claret Jug.
This week, the Open is back in Birkdale for the first time since, and no one will have fonder memories than the 1998 champ. We recently put O'Meara on the ESPN.com Hot Seat to discuss changes to the course, his knowledge of Tiger Woods' knee injury before the U.S. Open and the role of a mentor to younger players on tour.
Q: It's been 10 years since you won the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. Does it seem more like a lifetime ago or just yesterday?
A: You know, it kind of seems like a lifetime because 10 years, as you get older, it seems like it goes by quicker. It just seems like it was so long ago, but it was just very memorable, especially to have my family there -- my wife, Alicia; my son, Shaun; my daughter, Michelle. So it was a special victory 10 years ago, back in '98.
Q: What are some of your most lasting memories from that week?
A: I'd say there were two things. One, on the 71st hole, which was the 17th, a par-5, and at the time I was 1-over for the tournament and had this 14-footer for birdie. I remember looking up at the board and seeing Tiger had finished at plus-1, and at the time I was plus-1. I was lining it up and I'm thinking, "You know, I make these all the time at home when I'm playing with Tiger and I love it, because I know he's probably watching and I'm going to tick him off if I make it. And so, I got over it and I hit a good putt and it went in, got me back to even-par. And then I parred the last hole to finish, at the time, tied for the lead, 1 ahead of Tiger and just waiting to see what Brian Watts was going to do coming up 18. He needed par to tie me and if he birdies he wins and if he bogeys I win. I remember he hit into the bunker and had a very difficult shot, one foot in, one foot out. I was sitting with my family, and my son Shaun looks at me and says, "He's going to mess up." I said, "Hey, Shaun," -- and at the time, he was only 9 years old -- "You can never underestimate your opponent." And he said, "What do you mean?" I'm like, "Well, you've got to assume he's going to do well, so you can't let your guard down." And [Watts] got in the bunker and he hits the shot to about 10 inches of the hole.
Q: Looking back at that playoff, was it more nerves or excitement? Or both?
A: Well, it was a little bit of a combination of both. It was a little bit of nerves and a little bit of excitement. Certainly, to have won the Masters earlier that year in April was a big plus; it gave me a little boost of confidence. But anytime you're in a major championship, you know what's on the line. With this being the Open Championship of the world, with so much history and one which I truly loved playing, I was definitely a little bit on edge.
Q: You mentioned the Masters victory that came a few months earlier, so let me put you on the spot. What's better: Winning a green jacket or the Claret Jug?
A: Wow, Jason. You are putting me on the Hot Seat right there. You know, I would say that obviously the green jacket is something special, but if I had to pick just one, I'd probably pick the Claret Jug only because I'm an American player, but I probably play more globally than other guys. The Claret Jug is a special trophy. It's kind of like the Stanley Cup.
Q: For those who haven't seen the course since 1998, what changes should we expect to see this week?
A: Well, they've lengthened the course by a little bit, about 155 yards. And they've also narrowed it up a little bit by helping the rough areas adjacent to some of the fairways, which really kind of force you to drive it straighter to avoid some of the bunkering they've added.
Q: You reached that playoff with Brian Watts after shooting even-par for 72 holes of regulation. Will a similar score win this time around, or is it all dependent on the weather conditions?
A: It's going to definitely depend on the weather. In links golf, if the wind doesn't blow, if you don't have that kind of equalizer, then you're going to see some good scoring. And if it does blow, like it did in '98, then I'd imagine right around that even-par number will be a good score. If it doesn't blow, anywhere from 6- to 12-under-par can win the tournament.
Q: You're now 51 and playing the Champions Tour full-time. Do you have a specific goal for the tournament? Making the cut? Top 20? Top 10?
A: I just want to be competitive. At Augusta, I missed the cut by 2 shots. Qualified for the U.S. Open and missed the cut by 2 shots. There's been a couple of low points, haven't played great this year. But if I play well enough, you never know. There might be something left in the old guy.
Q: Switching gears, your buddy Tiger Woods obviously put on an amazing display at the U.S. Open last month. What was going through your mind as you watched it unfold?
A: It was a little different for me because I knew how bad Tiger's knee was. There were about six people in Tiger's camp that knew how bad his left knee was -- a lot more than people had any understanding about. The doctor told him not to play. He went against the doctor's orders, told him, "Hey, I love Torrey Pines. You know what I've done there. I've got to give it a try." If he stands around that 18th green or wherever the ceremony was after winning the playoff against Rocco Mediate and says it was probably the greatest win he ever had, you've got to take him for his word. So I would say it was pretty remarkable what he did there.
Q: Did you speak with him beforehand, maybe give him some advice about that knee going into the Open?
A: We had dinner about 2½ weeks prior to the U.S. Open here in Park City [Utah], and he said, "You know, listen, it's doing better." But he always says that; he always downplays it. But I kind of know, because a lot of times, being as close as I am to Tiger, kind of being his big brother, I know what's going on. I saw him limping then. I knew it was bothering him. And I know there was a lot of speculation about how bad it actually was -- different media outlets saying different things, different players saying different things. You know, is he hurt? Is he faking it? But no one can underestimate someone's pain tolerance. He's a tough guy. We know that. You don't win the amount of tournaments that Tiger Woods has won and had the career he's had by not being an incredibly tough competitor. So if he was wincing like that, you know that he was hurting.
Q: Have you spoken with him recently? And if so, what's his mind-set right now?
A: Well, I talked to him this Sunday. While his tournament was being played in D.C., I called him just to check on him and he actually picked up. A lot of times he doesn't pick up, but he actually picked up and we chatted for a while. He said he's felt a lot of pain for the last two or three weeks, just sitting around. I said, "Is anybody around?" He said, "No, my bride's over in Sweden with our daughter visiting family and I'm just itching. I'm a little bit on edge." You know, I think he's doing well. As long as he listens to the doctors -- sometimes that's hard for a superstar, whether you're Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or whoever, to take advice and listen -- but if he just does what he's supposed to do in the next four to five months, then come December, early January, he'll be as good as new.
Q: Much like you took Woods under your wing when he was younger, you've done the same for Anthony Kim. Do you enjoy playing the role of mentor to some of the up-and-coming players?
A: I do. I tell you, Jason, I played with Anthony Kim in Greg Norman's tournament last year, the Merrill Lynch Shootout. He was my partner. And after three days, I walked away from that tournament and I called Tiger, I told my wife, I told everybody, I said, "This kid is the best young player I've ever seen except Tiger Woods." He has the most skills, the most talent, and I saw a guy that -- wow -- he has some serious game. So I'm not surprised to see him do what he's done so far this year. I just hope that at , he keeps on handling himself the right way, on and off the golf course. Playing the game is one thing, but continually trying to strive to get better, continually trying to do the right thing as a human being, are both very important, in sports and in life. So, I'm proud of what Anthony has done. I try to stay in touch with him once in a while; I was around him a lot this past winter out in the desert. You know, it was a great victory that he pulled off at Wachovia, and obviously he played great at Tiger's event [recently] at Congressional.
Q: You're on record as saying Anthony's swing is better right now than Tiger's was at the same age. Still stand by that claim?
A: Yeah, I do.
Q: Is it too early to consider him a legitimate challenger to Woods' throne as the top-ranked player?
A: No. I think that if he continues to try and develop his work ethic and stay focused, I think he's got all the right [attributes]. Listen, he can't hit it as far as Tiger; he's not as powerful as Tiger. But he's got a good short game, he's a good putter, I think he's a pretty feisty competitor, he's not afraid to win -- you know, all those qualities that you need to have to be the No. 1 player in the world. Now, do I think he's near Tiger? No, not really. Nobody is, Jason, to be honest with you. But if he keeps developing, you know, you give him another two years, there's no reason why, in my opinion, he can't win a major each year and three or four other tournaments.
Q: If you were forced to walk into a Ladbrokes and place a few Euros on the next Open champion, whom would you pick?
A: Oh, man. I'm not a real big bettor. I don't see how you can win betting on golf, unless you're betting on Tiger; he's got a pretty good track record. But I've got to think Sergio [Garcia] has a good chance. He's determined, he's more mature, he's played pretty well this year. So I'd probably go with Sergio.
Q: Mark O'Meara, you are off the ESPN.com Hot Seat.
A: Thanks, Jason.
Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
7hKevin Van Valkenburg