Mark O’Meara, who waited 17 years to win his first major title and promptly added a second within three months, defends his Open Championship crown at Carnoustie this week.
The popular American beat countryman Brian Watts in a four hole play-off for the oldest major in golf at Royal Birkdale last year after the two players tied on a level par total of 280.
It proved to be the culmination of a long and occasionally frustrating career for O’Meara, who had had some close calls in the majors down the years.
However he ended a majestic season as Golfer of the Year in the United States and, for good measure, made a return to the UK to add the Cisco Systems World Match Play title to his list of successes.
In April, O’Meara won the Masters tournament after birdieing the closing two holes. He took confidence from winning the Lawrence Batley International at Birkdale 11 years earlier and beat Watts by two shots in the play-off.
This year, O’Meara hasn’t enjoyed the same success but is relishing the opportunity to defend his Open title over the longest course on the Championship rotation.
He said: “I’ve played reasonably well but haven’t putted as well as I would like. Everybody expects you to perform every week but in golf that’s not possible.
“There is still a lot of golf to be played and set my sights are set on coming back and defending my Open Championship. That will be fun. I have played Carnoustie.
“It’s a wonderful golf course, very difficult. It is probably one of the toughest courses on the rotation. I played it during a Bank of Boston exhibition right after the Open at St.Andrews in 1995.
O’Meara added: “Coming into the tournament last year I had won the Masters, a massive tournament with so much publicity. My year has been very much the same but without the Masters victory.
“I’m 42 now, I am not a kid any more. I am a lot older and I’ve been bouncing about a bit, taking advantage of some of the opportunities that have come along from last year. I don’t feel tired but sometimes that’s the way golf is. You win a major or two in one year and people expect you to do that for the rest of your life.”
O’Meara’s close friend, Tiger Woods, returns to Carnoustie after playing in the Scottish Open over the Angus Links, which returns to the rota after an absence of 24 years.
Woods, who finished behind US Open champion Payne Stewart and Phil Mickelson at Pinehurst recently, insisted that the four majors remain his ultimate dream.
He said: “I always have the desire to win more majors and any big tournament that I play in. The ultimate goal is to win majors and it’s not easy.
“The greatest player in the game has won only 18 of them (Jack Nicklaus) so it’s not easy. A lot of good things have to go your way. You have to get good breaks and hit good shots. I played Carnoustie in two Scottish Opens and it was very tough.”
The European Tour has been unable to boats a winner of the Open since Nick Faldo triumphed at Muirfield in 1992. However the record in the Masters – with Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal (2), Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer all winning Green Jackets in the nineties – suggests that an Open winner isn’t far away.
Olazabal, aiming to be fit after breaking a bone in his knuckle during the US Open, has a sublime short game to deal with Carnoustie’s nuances while Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Jesper Parnevik and new teenage star Sergio Garcia are all aiming for the ultimate accolade.
Ernie Els, new father and European Tour Honorary Member, made a dash to Scotland last week top see for himself whether the course justified its reputation as a ferociously tough lay-out. He was not disappointed.
Els admitted: “The course is in excellent shape and looks great but it has a totally different look to what it had in 1996 when I played in the Scottish Open.
“I think if the wind picked up anything under 290 (+6) will be a great score. It’s quite unbelievable how the rough is. I’ve never seen anything like it. If I could get a good bet, I’d be that four over will win.”
Tom Watson and Gary Player, the champions at Carnoustie in 1975 and 1968 respectively, make sentimental journeys back to the scene of their famous victories.
Montgomerie, Volvo Order of Merit winner for the past six years, holds the course record of 64 and quietly fancies his chances of performing well over the links, which now possesses an imposing new hotel overlooking the first tee.
Ian Woosnam, winner of a Scottish Open, aims to revive happy memories from 1996, while the most interesting facet of the week will be how 19 year old Murphy’s Irish Open champion Garcia acquits himself.
Could he become the first teenage winner since Young Tom Morris in 1865? It will be fascinating to find out.
for Open Championship Website.