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Mark O'Meara hopeful of brighter season

Mark O'Meara spends more time in the gym these days. He's taken off some weight. He feels stronger.

Already, he's seeing results on the golf course. The Isleworth resident entered the final round of last weekend's Champions Tour event, the Toshiba Classic, atop the leaderboard and finished in a tie for second place, just one shot behind winner Eduardo Romero.

"Last year was a very difficult year," O'Meara said. "I didn't play well. On the course, off the course — I had a lot of issues going on and it was just a down year. But this year, I'm a little bit more driven, a little bit more focused. There's some good things I'm starting to see.

"I'm 52 now, and I've been doing it for 30 years, but yet, I feel like there's still some good golf left in these old bones."

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O'Meara will test himself again over the next few days. On Friday, he'll tee it up at the AT&T Champions Classic in Valencia, Calif. After the tournament ends on Sunday, he will jet across the country back to Orlando with John Cook, Mark McNulty and their caddies for the Tavistock Cup, which is scheduled to begin Monday morning at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club.

O'Meara will serve as Team Isleworth's captain once again. Last year, with O'Meara at the helm, Isleworth won 19 1/2 to 11 1/2 .

"I think we've got the bragging rights," he said. "This year, going back to Nona on their home turf, we've got to play well."

O'Meara is a natural to captain a team. His friendship with fellow Isleworth resident Tiger Woods is well known, and O'Meara has served as a mentor to Woods. Because of his relationship with Woods, O'Meara makes news almost any time he befriends or praises a young, up-and-coming golfer.

Rising star Anthony Kim, 23, has said that O'Meara provided a badly needed jolt back in 2007, before Kim had won on the PGA Tour. O'Meara told Kim that Kim had as much talent as any golfer other than Woods, and that Kim had to take more responsibility to improve and work harder. Kim since has won two PGA Tour events.

Two months ago, O'Meara played in Dubai alongside Rory McIlroy, the 19-year-old phenom from Northern Ireland. "Ball-striking wise at 19, he's probably better than Tiger was at 19," O'Meara told reporters then.

And, now, O'Meara says: "The young players today, the ones that I see that have got immense talent, I can't help but not complement them on that. If I can be of any assistance to them, it's great. I enjoy it. I enjoy watching their success. If they're good kids and they're going to do good in the game, I'm happy to be there for them if they want it."

Yet as much as he enjoys the role as mentor and elder statesman, O'Meara still has goals for himself. He won 16 PGA Tour events, including the Masters and the British Open in 1998, but he still wants to compete in the Masters and the British Open and he knows perfectly well that he hasn't won yet on the Champions Tour.

After four runner-up finishes as a Champions Tour rookie in 2007, O'Meara took a step backward last year. Dealing with a divorce, O'Meara posted just two top-10 finishes in 16 Champions Tour events.

Those on-course struggles prompted him to work harder off the course.

"I think a lot of people anticipated that I'd play on the Champions Tour and maybe dominate or win, but the guys play so well out there," he said. "I was disappointed, and I don't like not living up to the way I think I should play. So that kind of drove me to get in the gym and try to get a little bit stronger and get a little bit more physically fit."

He is the first to say that confidence doesn't suddenly reappear. Even after all those wins on the PGA Tour, O'Meara acknowledged that he's still in the process of rebuilding his game.

But slowly, it's coming back.


March 11, 2009

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