Golf: Earning stripes with Tiger

Paul Trow on a champion who is reaping the fruits of persistence
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COLIN MONTGOMERIE, perennial bridesmaid at golf's major occasions, should take heart. To confirm that talent and dedication can ultimately reap their just rewards, he need only look at Mark O'Meara.

For a decade and a half O'Meara was a prolific tournament winner without ever landing a big one. That was until this year when, at the advanced age of 41 and in the honourable tradition of London buses, two major championship titles came along in just three months - the Masters at Augusta National and the Open at Royal Birkdale.

Despite these victories, the greying, balding American with a hint of a middle-aged spread is unlikely to rival his young chum, Tiger Woods, as the sport's pin-up boy, even though most golfers are far more likely to identify with him.

It has been suggested the recent emergence of Woods, his young neighbour in Florida, prompted this Indian summer. It continued yesterday in unseasonable sunshine at St Andrews with a round of 68 to tie with Sweden's Patrik Sjoland.

Typically, O'Meara's answer is honest and thoughtful. "I think my technique has got better. I've worked hard throughout my career, stumbled across a couple of things in the last two years, and practising at home with Tiger has helped.

"I think I'm a better ball-striker and my biggest asset this year is that I haven't got too upset at myself," he continued. "Lord knows, I can hit some bad shots but I just go and find it and play. Mentally I'm a lot better than I've ever been and that enabled me to win the majors the way I did, coming down the stretch and drawing on past experience."

In addition to his obvious abilities - straight hitting, repetitive swing, tidy short game, deadly putter - O'Meara is one of golf's true gentlemen, an image not remotely dented by the fuss kicked up by Sweden's Jarmo Sandelin over a film clip which seemed to show the American replacing his ball closer to the hole after marking it, en route to winning last year's Lancome Trophy.

Further evidence of his sportsmanship has been seen during the Alfred Dunhill Cup, in which he is captaining the United States with stunning efficiency. Not only has O'Meara led from the front, completing his three tours of the Old Course thus far in 11 under par, but he has been demonstrating with his skilful man-management of John Daly why it should only be a matter of time before he is invited to captain the US Ryder Cup team.

The Ryder Cup has been on his mind, if only because of the contrast with this week's event, which he clearly enjoys. A strong advocate of paying players who take part in the Ryder Cup, O'Meara also believes it has become too intense.

"I've played on four Ryder Cup teams and it's always a tremendous honour. It has become a spectacular event, and I realise that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.

"But whether you win or lose shouldn't depict what kind of human being you are. It should be a game where you go out, play hard and try to win, but at the end of the day you should be able to shake hands with the guy who beats you. It's no big deal. There's always tomorrow." So speaks the golfer for whom tomorrow came twice this year.