WITH ANOTHER of the commanding performances on the back nine which have characterised his US Masters and Open victories this year, Mark O'Meara defeated the world No 1, Tiger Woods, to win the World Match Play Championship.
When it matters most, no one else, including the mercurial Woods, currently manages to hole as many putts as the 41-year-old American. O'Meara scrambled an unlikely win at the 34th hole to go one-up and then holed from off the green at the 36th to deny Woods the chance of taking the match into extra holes.
The final could not have turned out better for Mark McCormack and the International Management Group, who have organised the event since 1964. Their two most high profile clients made sure the match ended in front of the hospitality units around the 18th green.
But when O'Meara and Woods get together, as they often do at home at Isleworth in Orlando, the matches are often close. "They usually are," said Woods. "This year Mark has been taking the cash out of my pockets and he has done it again today."
To do so O'Meara needed to play the afternoon round in an estimated 64 after being three-down at lunch. He birdied the first in the afternoon, added three more to go one-up at the seventh but the match was squared three times, twice by Woods and once by O'Meara, before the latter took the decisive lead.
"The ebb and flow of matchplay is a beautiful thing and that is what makes this such a great format," Woods said. O'Meara lost the 15th due to a poor drive and appeared to have done the same at the next. He could only find a greenside bunker, came out to 15 feet but holed the putt for a par.
Woods was 12 feet away in two but was too aggressive with his putt, and then pushed the return from four feet. "I'd like to have given it to him, but it was just too far," O'Meara said. "At that point I liked my chances of at least going to extra holes."
A poor drive at the 17th from Woods, skying the ball barely onto the fairway, left him struggling to make the birdie he knew he needed to keep the match alive but he holed from 10 feet to do just that. Both found bunkers at the last and had to lay up. Woods, from the light rough, hit his pitch to eight feet but O'Meara, from the fairway, saw his spin back off the green.
He had to negotiate the collar and a double break but the 18-foot putt slipped in to give O'Meara a one-up victory. The winner turned to the runner-up and said: "I am sorry someone has to lose a match like that."
"It was an incredible way to end the tournament," O'Meara said. "I wanted to make it because I knew Tiger would hole his. He never gave up and kept forcing me to make it happen."
At 41 O'Meara is the oldest player to win the event, in which only two of the 19 champions have not also won a major championship. He remains the No 3 on the world rankings, behind Woods and fellow American David Duval.
"To win the World Match Play after everything else that has happened to me in winning the Masters and the Open really makes this a dream year for Mark O'Meara. I am proud of myself that I can pull through when the pressure is on."
An errant camera click as Woods was about to tee off at the 18th was the only interference from those observing and there was no repeat of the abusive comments Woods suffered on Saturday. Woods professed himself "shocked" at the isolated comments but has heard it all before. As one of the minders guarding Tiger said: "A couple of villages were short of their idiots."
After a bogey from O'Meara at the first in the morning - he would make only one more all day - Woods chipped in at the second and birdied the third to go three-up. When Woods declined to concede a two-and-a- half- foot putt, O'Meara realised this was not their usual friendly match-up. "Tiger didn't say very much. He wanted to win."
The match turned as soon as they resumed in what was now warm afternoon sunshine. "If he thought he had a big lead, then he didn't know who he was playing," O'Meara said. "The birdie at the first was of the utmost importance." Woods bogeyed the third and back-to-back birdies at the sixth and seventh gave O'Meara the lead. At the sixth he holed from outside his opponent, an annoying ploy, and then he hit a seven-iron to a foot at the next.
Woods responded with a six-iron to a foot at the ninth and also birdied the 10th. "With three par-fives to come, I was thinking `who's got the advantage now'," O'Meara admitted. But Woods hooked his drive at the first of them, the 12th, and though he managed to conjure up a birdie, O'Meara hit a superb two-iron from 218 yards which struck the flagstick and was conceded for an eagle.
At the short 14th, O'Meara holed from nine feet and saw Woods miss from four as the youngster's putting failed him at the vital time.
"I am very happy for Mark," Woods said. "I have always said he has not got enough credit for being the great player he is. He has had a great year and is finally getting his just dues."
HOLE BY HOLE
PAR 72 Out: 4 3 4 5 3 4 4 4 4 (35) In: 3 4 5 4 3 4 4 5 5 (37)
O'Meara Out: 5 3 4 4 3 4 4 4 4 (35) In: 3 3 4 4 3 4 4 W 4
Woods Out: 4 2 3 4 3 3 4 4 4 (31) In: 3 4 4 4 3 4 3 C 4 3 up
O'Meara Out: 3 3 4 4 3 3 3 4 4 (31) In: 3 4 3 4 2 5 4 4 4 (64)
Woods Out: 4 3 5 4 3 4 4 4 3 (34) In: 2 4 4 4 3 3 5 4 4 (67)
O'Meara won by 1 hole
Key: W Won, C Conceded
O'MEARA'S REWARDING YEAR
At 41, Mark O'Meara has enjoyed the most successful year of his career:
WINNER: The Masters, Augusta, 9-12 April Prize money: pounds 360,000
WINNER: The Open, Royal Birkdale, 16-19 July Prize money: pounds 300,000
WINNER: World Match Play, Wentworth,15-18 Oct Prize money: pounds 170,000Reuse content