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July 14, 2008

Mark O'Meara


MARTIN PARK: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. We'd like to welcome the 1998 Open Champion Mark O'Meara. Welcome back to the scene of your victory of 1998, probably the best adventure of your golfing life, and you came back a few weeks ago and doing a couple of hospitality days.
MARK O'MEARA: It's always nice to be back to Royal Birkdale. I was here, like Martin said, two weeks ago playing a couple days for the R & A. I know there's been some changes here at Birkdale since I won in 1998. Everyone talks about the major changes but I think the course has only been lengthened by 150, 155 yards. Probably the biggest changes that I saw out there were some of the mounding, narrowing up the golf course a little bit, some of the new bunkering and pushing the bunkers out a little bit farther to combat some of the length that the younger players have. The lengthening of 16, I know the green configuration of 17. But other than that, it seemed very similar to the way it was in '98.
So much depends here at Birkdale on the weather, as we know from past Open Championships. In '98 the weather was pretty severe, pretty windy, of course out of the southwest, and of course played quite demanding you might say, and the scoring reflected that.
I think this week a lot depends on what the wind does and how severe it blows. If it doesn't blow that hard, even though the rough is a little bit deeper this year because it's been a little wetter of a spring, I imagine these players, as good as they are, will shoot some pretty low scores. If the wind blows, even par will be a good score come Sunday afternoon. The weather is really what the factor is at any Open Championship, especially here at Birkdale.

Q. I was going to leave this 'til a bit later in the press conference then open it up. I notice you've got a golf in Dubai logo. What's your connection in the Middle East?
MARK O'MEARA: I've played in Dubai for the last ten years. This was my tenth year, and I've represented them for the past three years. I was able to win the Dubai Desert Classic about four years ago, so I have a relationship like a couple other players as an ambassador kind of representing Dubai around the world. To see and witness what's happened there has been very amazing for sure. So it's been a nice relationship and I'll be playing again there next February.

Q. How much of a commitment is it for you over in the Middle East then?
MARK O'MEARA: You know, not that big a commitment, really. I mean, I played in Dubai, and then I was in Delhi the next week playing in the Indian Masters, which EMAAR and a couple of the other guys have major sponsors. Certainly globally people realise what's happening in Dubai. It's a big destination, travel destination, vacation destination and certainly a golf destination now. So for me to represent the guys there, there's been a lot of loyalty on both sides. They've treated me tremendously over the last ten years.
I remember going there ten years ago after my Open Championship and Masters championship and came back to the U.S. and Tiger was intrigued, so he's like, hey, tell me about it, and how nice is it over there. So of course being his friend, I told him how nice it was and how much he'd enjoy going. Now, sure enough, he's gone several times and won the event several times. It's been a great relationship, it really has.

Q. Talking about your good friend Tiger, has absence this week and also from the Ryder Cup, what will that mean? What effect does that have on the tournaments?
MARK O'MEARA: Well, I mean, listen, even as great as Tiger Woods is and as much of a fan as I am of Tiger's, and I know what he's meant to the game over the last 11 years, I think even Tiger would have to admit this: No player, no matter who it is, is bigger than the game itself, not even Tiger. We've been blessed to witness something very special that's come along in the game the last 10 and a half, 11 years. He hasn't missed a major since '97. A lot of friends, myself included, over the last three years, have known how bad his knee was. I knew how bad it was prior to the U.S. Open, I knew how bad it was at Augusta, but we couldn't really say even though there was so many different speculations out there and most of the speculation was wrong. He's going to be missed, there's no denying it. I know how badly he wants to be playing it. I talked to him a week ago last Sunday after his tournament in Washington finished, and he's been -- it's been about three and a half weeks since the surgery and he's kind of just hanging out. He can't do much of anything. He can work out a little bit but he's got to be careful. As long as he does what the doctors tell him to do, which two of the doctors are both very good friends of mine out of Park City where I've been living the past few months, if he does do that, he'll be fine. He'll come back as good or better than ever. He hasn't been -- even though what we saw at Torrey Pines and even at Augusta, he has been a hurting camper, he really has.
You never know what one's pain threshold is, but if he says that was his greatest victory of all time, still for him at 34, 33, you'd have to take him for his word. He'll be fine, but he'll be definitely sorely missed. This week, without him here, there's a lot of players that have been playing well, and a lot of guys that can win, but there's a lot of guys every week, it just happens to be that he's the man to beat every single week, and he's just not here.

Q. Would that sorely missed include the Ryder Cup?
MARK O'MEARA: I think so, yeah, for sure. Any event he plays draws the media, draws the attention, draws the fans. We all want to see what Tiger is doing, so for him not to be on the Ryder Cup team, I think it's definitely going to hurt the U.S. team. But on the other hand it gives the team an opportunity to say, listen, we don't have the man, now we've got to step up. I think this year is going to be a very important year for the U.S. team because certainly Europe has dominated the Ryder Cup over the last four or five Ryder Cups even though we might have squeezed one victory out here and there.
The U.S. team has got some talent. I think the depth of the European team is much greater, and confidence is a big thing. They've won a lot, they know they can beat the Americans because they've proven it time in and time out, so it's time for the American players to step up. And Anthony Kim and some of these other young players coming up that have got loads of talent, it would be a better thing for the Ryder Cup, trust me, for it to be a closer match and maybe for the U.S. to win again, just like it was years and years ago when the U.S. dominated the Ryder Cup and it wasn't that big of an issue until the U.S. team started losing. I think it's going to be interesting to see what happens without Tiger on board.

Q. Getting back to something you said about Tiger being very special, the year that you had where you won here, you won The Masters and then you had that fantastic final with Tiger at the World Match Play, can you put into words what it feels like when you're teeing up? Do you have an aura --
MARK O'MEARA: No, far from it. If I told you how I felt going into Augusta in '98 it would totally amaze you. I wouldn't say that I hit the ball that great in '98. My stats didn't show that I hit the ball that great in '98, I wouldn't say that my confidence was very high in '98, but my expectations were probably so low thinking that my time had come to pass that winning a major championship might not be in the cards for myself, but I guess just realising that maybe took some of the pressure off, and the next thing you know there I was at Augusta National birdieing three of the last four holes and making that birdie to win.
If you had told me early in the week that I was going to be in the last group on Sunday, I would have given you everything I have to tell you that there was no way that I believe that that was going to be true.

Q. But having done that?
MARK O'MEARA: Well, coming here was different because in 1989 I won the Lawrence Batley Invitational here, which I think went on to be the English Classic. It was played here at Birkdale in '89.
Then I came in '91, knowing that I played well in that European event, and I was in the final group in '91 with Ian Baker-Finch here at Birkdale, tied for the lead after three rounds, finished 3rd or 4th, I don't remember exactly, somewhere around there, but I had a taste of it.
And then in '98 coming here as The Masters champ, we talked about it earlier, the weather was really bad, I think I shot 72, 68, 72, and I was in the second or third to the last group and a lot of things were going on on Sunday. There were a lot of players in the mix, Brian Watts, Jesper Parnevik, Jim Furyk, myself, Justin Rose, Tiger was birdieing a bunch of holes coming in, and fortunately I got in the playoff with Brian Watts after he hit the spectacular bunker shot on 18. I believe that in the playoff when we got out there, being the current Masters champion, I had already won one major, it gave me a fairly significant advantage, I thought, in the playoff.
Like I told my son sitting right over here on the 18th green ten years ago, when Brian Watts was in the bunker getting ready to hit that bunker shot. My son looked up at me and said, "Dad, you're going to win, you're going to win." I said, Shaun, you can't think that. You can never underestimate your opponent. You always have to think your opponent is going to do well. Even as badly as you want to think your opponent is going to screw up, you have to think he's going to do well. He says, "Why is that?" I said, "Then you're always ready if he does play a great shot." Just he and I having this conversation sitting on the 18th green ten years ago, and he got out of that bunker and he almost holed the bunker shot, he hit it like this. My son said, "How did you know he was going to do that?" I said, I didn't, but now we're going into a playoff. He's never forgotten that even to this day, and neither have I.
I don't know why it happened in '98, at 41 years of age to have never won a major but have played fairly well around the world and to finally have all that come true was, I don't know, maybe just the low expectations. Maybe you put too much pressure on yourself especially in majors. There's so much attention to worldwide golf and all the media and everything like that that even though you're a good player everybody is going to judge you on your record on how many majors you've won or what you've done in the major championships. Fortunately at least I think I finally got over the hump in '98 and won those two, and two of the best in my opinion.

Q. You mentioned Anthony Kim and you talked about him at length at Torrey Pines earlier this year. Given what he's done since Torrey Pines, I'm curious your thoughts on his season and how good he can be long-term.
MARK O'MEARA: Right. Well, I said this last year when I played with Anthony in Greg Norman's tournament in December at the Merrill Lynch Shootout. Him and I were partners. When I left that tournament after playing three days with Anthony, I called a bunch of people, Tiger included, and I said, You know what, this kid here is the best young player I've ever seen come along besides Tiger Woods. He has the most skill, the most talent. He seems like he's got an attitude but he's not afraid. So I'm not surprised to see what Anthony has done this year.
He just doesn't have really many weaknesses, and I think he's going to continue to grow and play. To win at Wachovia the way he did and then to win Tiger's event at Congressional, which is a world class golf course, I don't know what he shot the last day, 5- or 6-under par, I think he's going to be a contender here this week, I really do. He's got all the skills to be able to win a major championship. I think he's just turned 23 or whatever, and he's got an incredibly bright future ahead of him.

Q. Could you ever see yourself wearing a belt buckle like that?
MARK O'MEARA: No. I thought about that, actually, a big MO. No. I'm losing some weight, so you never know, there's some possibilities. I haven't played since the U.S. Open, so I've been in the river throwing my fly rod and camping. Unfortunately I had to spend some time in New York last night as my flight was delayed for eight hours. At 51, where would I rather be, in the south fork of the Snake River in my tent or sitting on that runway at JFK with about 30 planes in front of me? That's not a hard decision to make anymore; I'd rather be fly fishing for sure.

Q. Obviously because of your association with Tiger you look at things a little differently. There's some jealousy out here, and I know that people -- anyway, the fact that we've seen so many stories in the last three weeks, Tiger Woods is not here, Tiger Woods is not going to be there, and I just wonder, because of your unique approach knowing Tiger for so long, do you think these stories are unfair? And do you think other guys get a little upset? I just wonder even as close as you are to him, do you get upset at all about the Tiger-alone stories?
MARK O'MEARA: No, and I'm not a huge historian of the game but I am a little bit, and I would say that all of us in this room 11 years ago if we said, hey, there's going to be this golfer that's going to come along, and 11 years from now he's going to be either the most famous athlete in the world or one of the most famous athletes in the world, we all looked at each other and said, you're nuts, a golfer being that famous? No way? And sure enough, here we go. We've got this kid who came along, I don't know how many tournaments, 67, 65, how many majors, more media attention than any golfer, more than Jack, more than Arnold, more than all the other greats that laid the groundwork for Tiger to come along. Yeah, he's going to be sorely missed.
I guess if I was in my prime and I was No. 2 or No. 3 player in the world you'd probably get tired of hearing it. On the other hand, to watch what he's doing and how he conducts himself is pretty amazing. He's not perfect. He gets upset once in a while and this and that, but over all you'd have to say in high remarks he's done a phenomenal job.
I was here two and a half weeks ago for the R & A, and I knew after the Open, I talked to him right after he won the playoff with Rocco, I knew what the plan was all along. I couldn't say, but I always knew what was going to happen. When I came over here I already knew he wasn't going to be here. But the media asked me, and I couldn't say. I said, I think he's going to try to play if he can play. And then in the 48 hours that I was here it was announced on his website that he wasn't coming. So there was a little bit of a wave that came over. But once again, this championship is going to sorely miss Tiger. But on the other hand, you know, this is a great opportunity for some of the other players to step up now and some other players to move forward.
You know, it'll be six months, and six months always seems like an eternity, but more so for Tiger Woods than anybody else, trust me. It's harder for him to sit at home or do his rehab than it is for him to be out here competing, because what he lives for is not necessarily all of you in the room here and the media and the fans, but he lives for being inside the ropes and he lives for the competition, he lives for winning. That's what his M.O. is.
You know, we miss that, and I mean, I don't get tired of it. I think only because I feel privileged to have been around him, to kind of be sort of his big brother, to understand what he goes through day in and day out and what he has to live under. I know he makes a lot of money and I know he's famous and I know he does all the commercials, I know all that, I've seen it all. But you know what, I don't know how he does it, to be honest with you. You have to be special, and he is special.

Q. I was actually going to ask you whether this was an opportunity for everybody who sort of delved into that, does it make it easier without him being here, without his name -- you've all become sort of conditioned to look at the leaderboard and see where he's lurking in your rear-view mirror?
MARK O'MEARA: I think a major is hard no matter what, certainly added pressure. Certainly there was for me in all the years that I've played major championships, just knowing what comes with winning a major championship and how important it is because of the history and because people are going to always look back if you've won this championship or a Masters or a U.S. Open or a PGA. Those are the four biggies. You only have four real big tournaments in golf, and this is one of them. Even though Tiger is not here, his name sits on that Claret Jug three times, and there's some other really good players that have won this event at this course.
To be at Birkdale this week, to still have a tremendous field, yeah, is it kind of semi-wide open, yes, but there's some other players yet to have won a tournament of this magnitude that are very talented and are probably going to be in the mix this week.

Q. One other thing about him. I think what surprises many of us as much as the fact that he needed surgery was his comment that he said he hadn't felt particularly well for ten years. Did that surprise you?
MARK O'MEARA: Well, I don't know about not feeling good for ten years. I mean, if you make $100 million a year you've got to feel pretty good, I think.
Yeah, he does -- listen, Michael Jordan, you know, who's a great basketball player, they have their best games when he's got the flu. I've played many times with Tiger, like prior to the Masters, and he'd come with some bullarkey excuse while we're out there playing in a practise round that he wouldn't tell any of you but he'd say to me. I'd look at him like, are you kidding me? I thought to myself okay, I'd better go bet on him. Even though I don't bet on golf, I'm not a better, but if Tiger Woods tells me he's got the sniffles or a cough or his leg is bothering him -- not his knee but some other part of his leg, I'm thinking, oh, this is prime time for me to bet on him. He's going to win. They always have to have something that they can fall back on if things don't go right, but things always go right for him. It's not like he doesn't make enough putts. It's not like he doesn't make them right in the middle.
I'll tell you a cute story, I've told some people this, and Peter Malik, my manager back there knows it, about five or six or seven years ago, it might have been the year after I won the masters, we were out playing a practice round at Augusta and we were on No. 7, and it was Tiger Woods and John Cook and Steve Williams was caddying for Tiger and I had my caddie, and I sliced my tee shot way to the right off No. 7 and it was ugly, and the next one was kind of hit low left and I wasn't hitting it good and my confidence was low and I was ticked.
We're walking off the tee and my caddie yells over to me, "Hey, do you want me to go get you a chicken sandwich while I go find that ball over on the right?" I'm like, and Tiger and Steve Williams just burst out laughing, just busting, and I'm like so mad because I'm struggling. I didn't say a word. I didn't even respond to his comment. I walked over to the left and I couldn't talk for two holes I was so upset, because I had been practising for a couple of weeks at home. I wasn't playing well, I was down on my game, and Tiger knew that my caddie crossed the line there and how upset I was. So I didn't say anything. Finally going down 9, Tiger says to me, I've never you for a long time. I've never, ever seen you that mad. I said, yeah, I came that close to taking out my driver and whacking my caddie in the head and firing him, but I didn't say anything.
So at the U.S. Open on No. 13 on Saturday, I think you remember the par-5, Tiger hit his drive way over to the right, way, way right. So I missed the cut by a couple shots, so I was on my phone, and I text messaged him. I said, "Hey, T, just out of curiosity when you get this message, did you happen to pick up a chicken sandwich when you were over there on 13 with mustard on it?" I never heard, but I didn't know that he was going to hit a 5-iron on the back of the green and then hoop it for eagle. But that's Tiger Woods.
I'm over there in the hot dog stand and I make a double or triple, and he makes eagle. It's just kind of a cute story.
I saw him after he had his surgery. I said, "By the way, did you ever get my text message?"
"Yes, I saw it. No, I didn't get any chicken sandwich, but I did have a good lie over there." I said, "You always get all the breaks."
He's not always good, but he's pretty lucky, too.

Q. Do you think he's exaggerating when he made that comment?
MARK O'MEARA: Every superstar is a little bit of a hypochondriac.

Q. Among your many good memories of '98 here, do you have any wind memories?
MARK O'MEARA: Yeah, they stopped play -- I played late-early the first two days, I believe, and Tiger played opposite. And I remember they called play on Friday for about 45 minutes, didn't they, 30 or 45 minutes they called play because the ball was moving on the greens.
I think the R & A does a fabulous job setting up the courses only because they realise the weather conditions can change so dramatically out there. I don't know of any other time, at least in my years of playing the Open Championships, that they called because of the wind being too severe.

Q. One follow-up on the wind. I think you played a practise round with Woods Monday or Tuesday that week, and I think the 8th was dead downwind and you bet him he couldn't drive the green --
MARK O'MEARA: And he did. He loves a challenge, he always did. He wasn't a very good basketball player when he came to Orlando and now he shoots great, but it helps to hang out with Michael Jordan. He wasn't that great at ping-pong and now he's great. He still can't beat me on the river throwing a fly rod.

Q. Snow skiing?
MARK O'MEARA: He can't beat me snow skiing. Well, he doesn't come anymore. Well, he couldn't because of his knee.
These guys are thrill seekers, these superstars, and certainly he loves a challenge.
I think as you get older you realise you can only do so much, and with his surgery that he had, as Tom Rosenberg and Vern Cooley, the two guys who performed the surgery, Vern is a very close friend of mind, and so is Tom, and they did a great job. They're totally convinced that he'll be better than he has been for the last eight years. Now that might not be good news for the players on the rest of the Tour, but come January, he'll be ready to go. And I mean, I reckon it'll seem like a long time but it won't be that long a time when he's back.
MARTIN PARK: Thank you very much.

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