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Golf Today 22nd March
Carlos Franco added to Furyk's event
O'Meara in danger of slipping into oblivion
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Golf Notes March 22
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O'Meara in danger of slipping into oblivion

Mark O'Meara took 19 years to reach the top of the mountain. Getting back seems like an even longer journey.

Only two years ago, O'Meara was the best player in a Florida neighbourhood that included Tiger Woods and Ernie Els. He became the first player since Arnold Palmer to birdie the last two holes to win The Masters, and three months later became the oldest player to win two majors in a year with his playoff victory in the Open.

The view from the top never looked so splendid.

He had a beautiful family, 23 victories around the world, two majors, and finally a chance to turn his fame into fortune, which he did with no apologies.

Lately, however, he has been paying the price.

While chasing the dollar around the world, O'Meara lost the edge. He became comfortable with all that he accomplished instead of hungry for more. He has a green jacket in a locker at Augusta National, a claret jug in his trophy case, and not much left to prove.

Why bother going back to the mountain?

"I'm at a level where I've got to decide what I really want to do," he said. "Do I want to back off and spend more time with my family, refresh my mind so I can get ready for the Senior Tour? A lot of guys take a break for five or six years and get hungry again."

But O'Meara hears another voice that beckons him upward.

Sometimes it comes from within, the voice of pride that challenges him to be the player who has won 16 times on the PGA Tour, was player of the year in 1998 and only once since 1984 finished out of the top 50 on the money list.

Other times, it comes from the kid next to him on the practice range.

"He hasn't been hitting it real well," Woods said. "I've tried to encourage him. He keeps wanting to cut back, and I keep telling him, 'No.' He's got too much left."

O'Meara went out of his way to welcome Woods to the neighbourhood in Isleworth and to life on the PGA Tour, a big brother to a player who has become one of the biggest stars in sports.

Now it is Woods who is taking the time to pick up O'Meara and remind him that hard work and dedication can go a long way, even if the drives don't.

"Tiger is so funny," O'Meara says. "He says, 'You've got to recommit yourself. One more year. One more year.' He knows I'm struggling. And he's trying to push me."

But the biggest push will have to come from O'Meara.

While travelling around the world and cashing in on his fame, O'Meara got away from what made him one of the most consistent players of his generation.

He failed to win last year, never really came close. His best finish in a major was a tie for 31st in The Masters. His attitude began to sour.

He keeps looking for a sign, and all he sees his peach fuzz. Just last week, he played a practice round with Woods, 20-year-old Sergio Garcia, and Aaron Baddeley, who just turned 19 on March 17.

"They've got their whole careers in front of them," he said.

O'Meara is at a crossroads.

The last time his game was this bad was in 1993 and 1994, when he finished no better than third in 35 PGA Tour events. Pride got the best of him, and he slowly turned it around, starting with the Argentina Open at the end of '94.

"I don't think it's quite as bad now," he said. "If I just start hitting shots that are a little more quality, seeing some signs, I think the bounce back period will be quicker."

The Players Championship is the one-year anniversary of O'Meara's last top-10 finish. He wound up five strokes behind David Duval in a tie for sixth last year, then began a slow, steady descent into a slump that has been eating at him lately.

O'Meara is burning to play well again.

He is sick of grinding just to make the cut. He is frustrated at losing his game in the short time it takes to walk from the driving range to the first tee. He is hungry again.

"I don't enjoy failure," he decided.

That has always been O'Meara's mark. He never considered himself a great player, not like Hogan or Nicklaus, even when he was winning two majors in a year. His success was measured most by the fact he rarely failed.

"Find your game" are the words stitched in copper threads on his Taylor Made bag, and O'Meara is searching harder than he has in the past year. Twenty years on the PGA Tour has taught him that golf, as in life, is full of peaks and valleys.

He is at the base of the mountain, sizing up what it will take to get back to the top.

"This isn't the way I want to go out,'' he said quietly. "I want to climb the mountain."

 

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