Because winning a major is so difficult, because the pressures that are brought to bear late on a Sunday afternoon can be mentally and emotionally crippling, golfers constantly tell themselves and anyone who is willing to listen that it really isn't that big a deal.
"You know, a lot of great golfers have never won a major," Greg Norman, who has won two but lost many others, once insisted. When a listener asked Norman to list all those great players who had never won a major, Norman paused. Then he smiled and said, "Okay, a lot of good players have never won a major."
Exactly. Although winning a major championship does not guarantee greatness, not winning one guarantees that you will never be considered great. Deep in his heart, every golfer knows this. He knows there will always be a blank page on his golfing résumé if he doesn't win a major.
Mark O'Meara knew all this. He knew that he would always be asked about not winning a major title until and unless he won one. Publicly, O'Meara repeated the mantra that players in his position repeat if only to keep themselves sane: "If I never win a major, I'll still have had a very good career," he said over and over when the question came up. Then he would point out that he had won the U.S. Amateur title in 1979 and many people considered that a major. "I've never won a professional major," he would say.
Euphemisms aside, O'Meara knew that if he hadn't won fourteen times on the PGA Tour and hadn't been one of the game's more consistent players for fifteen years, he would never have had to answer the dreaded "major" question. But he had been asked the question repeatedly, enough times that he had half-jokingly said earlier in the week that he would like to win the Masters if only so he would never have to answer the question again.
O'Meara was far too pleasant a man to snap at anyone for asking the question, but he was sensitive about it. A year earlier, when Jaime Diaz of Sports Illustrated had written a piece headlined "King of the Bs," about O'Meara, he had been hurt and insulted. He believed his record was better than that of a 'B' player --- even the best 'B' player. But deep down he knew the point Diaz was making. You could win at Pebble Beach forever --- O'Meara had won there five times --- and it wouldn't be good enough until you won on one of golf's four special weekends.
Now, as Duval lined up his putt at 15, O'Meara and Couples were walking off the 14th tee. Duval led them both by two shots, but their mindsets at that moment were very different. Couples had believed all week that he was going to win the tournament. He had won in 1992, and everything seemed to be aligned for him to win it again in 1998. He had led or been tied for the lead ever since Thursday afternoon, when he had started birdie-birdie-birdie. But now, in the wake of the double bogey that had caused all the murmuring at 15, Couples was trying to regroup emotionally.
O'Meara had no such traumas to deal with. He had trailed Couples almost all day and was two strokes behind him standing on the 13th tee. Fifteen minutes later, he and Couples had walked off the green dead even. He knew Duval was two shots and two holes ahead, but there was plenty of time to catch him. At a moment when all sorts of crazy thoughts could have been raging inside his head, O'Meara felt relaxed. One more time he told himself what he had been saying all day long: "When you've been in position to win on tour, you've done a good job closing the deal. Today should be no different."
Of course it was different, as Duval's pounding heart could attest. He had spent the whole day playing the "it's just another tournament" game, but it wasn't working now. It hadn't been working since the 10th hole, when he had chipped in to get within two shots of the lead and had realized that another of golf's oft-repeated clichés was now very much in play: "The Masters doesn't begin until the back nine on Sunday." It was Sunday, he was on the back nine, and the tournament was very much under way.
© 1999 by John Feinstein
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