US Masters Golf:The middle-aged strike back with mellow O'Meara

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The Independent Online
MARK O'MEARA finally capped a model professional career by winning his first major championship at the age of 41. His first US Masters title came at the 15th attempt, longer than anyone else who has achieved the feat has had to wait. He was helped into his green jacket by Tiger Woods, the young genius he befriended when last year's champion set out on his professional career.

The pair are neighbours on the Isleworth course in Orlando and O'Meara admitted the emergence of Woods helped to continue to motivate a player who has been on tour since 1981. His 14 victories had made him one of the wealthiest players in the game but, like Tom Kite before he won the US Open in 1992, O'Meara's c.v. lacked a major championship.

Asked about the missing link to his career, O'Meara would suggest he had a Masters title - the Australian Masters - and if it was all right for Jack Nicklaus to include his two US Amateur Championships in his major wins, why was O'Meara's overlooked.

But the defining moment of his career will now be the 15-foot putt he made on the final green to win the 62nd Masters. He became only the fourth player to birdie the last to win, and the first since Sandy Lyle 10 years ago. Ironically, Fred Couples was in the same fairway bunker as Lyle, but his recovery only found more sand and the '92 champion shared second place with David Duval.

O'Meara had also birdied the 15th and the 17th in his closing 67 to be nine under. "This is the biggest day of my carer," O Meara said. "You know I wanted to make that putt so that there wouldn't be a play-off and it just squeaked in as I was hoping."

It was like old times at Augusta National yesterday. A brilliant start from Nicklaus got the gallery roaring early on in the perfect to the fun to come on the back nine.

Couples saw his two-stroke overnight advantage cut in half when by the turn as O'Meara birdied three holes in a row from the second. Couples was out in two under but knew the usual Augusta convention that the Masters does not start until the back nine on Sunday was being invoked again.

He got through the first two terrors of Amen Corner but then came to grief with a double bogey at the 13th. He hooked his drive into the trees, hacked out and then put his third shot into Rae's Creek. On Saturday, Couples had played a supreme approach shot at the same hole which set up a tap-in eagle and he now did the same at the last par-five, the 15th.

Recovering those two shots, however, was only good enough to draw him level with Duval. The 27-year-old with the wrap-around shades and the goatee beard bogeyed the first but then never looked back. Duval immediately birdied the next, then the seventh, ninth, 10th and 11th to move to eight under.

When he birdied the 15th, just missing out on an eagle, Duval briefly led by three but then three-putted the severely sloping green of the 16th. He matched O'Meara's 67, while Couples had a 70. "Mark played great," Couples said. "He has been out here a long time and is a great player. I didn't miss many shots but I had a big blunder on the 13th."

That it was not a Tiger but a Bear, the six-time champion Nicklaus in his 40th Masters, who made the early charge led to a wave of nostalgia sweeping over Augusta. The oldest player, at 58, to feature in the top- 10 going into the final round, made four birdies in his front nine of 33 but could never quite get close enough to the leaders despite birdieing the 13th and 15th.

"When I got on to the first tee and saw the look in Jack's eyes, I could see I was in for something special," said Ernie Els, who was playing alongside Nicklaus. "He said to me: `We may not be in the final group, but let's play as if we are'."

Nicklaus finished at five under and shared sixth place with David Toms, who had a run of six birdies in a row from the 12th. The streak tied an Augusta record previously held by Johnny Miller and Mark Calcavecchia, whose back nine 29 was also matched by Toms. "I didn't realise I made six birdies in a row until I looked at my card in the scoring tent," the 31-year-old from Louisiana said.

Woods, defending the title he won by 12 strokes last year, was expected to make the big charge. But though Woods birdied three of the par-fives, he missed a short putt at the first which set the tone for a level par front nine. He came home in 34 for a 70 which left him at three under in joint eighth place, alongside Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke and Justin Leonard, who found being six behind the lead, rather than his usual five, too much to deal with.

Clarke put in a spirited performance on his debut. Getting up and down for a four at the second and a 50-foot putt at the third gave the 29-year- old Ulsterman the first two of six birdies in his 69. This was the best performance by an Irishman at the Masters, bettering Ronan Rafferty's 14th place in 1990. "I've had a great week," Clarke said. "One I'll never forget. My aim was to finish in the top-24 and I'm delighted to know I'll be coming back next year."

Montgomerie had his best start of the week with birdies at the seventh and ninth taking him out in 35 and he also came home in one under to improve on his previous best finish of 17th at Augusta.

Fourth-round scores from Augusta

(US unless stated)

279

M O'Meara 74 70 68 67

280

D Duval 71 68 74 67

F Couples 69 70 71 70

281

J Furyk 76 70 67 68

282

P Azinger 71 72 69 70

283

D Toms 75 72 72 64

J Nicklaus 73 72 70 68

285

J Leonard 74 73 69 69

D Clarke (GB) 76 73 67 69

T Woods 71 72 72 70

C Montgomerie (GB) 71 75 69 70

286

P-U Johansson (Swe) 74 75 67 70

J M Olazabal (Sp) 70 73 71 72

J Haas 72 71 71 72

P Mickelson 74 69 69 74

287

I Woosnam (GB) 74 71 72 70

S McCarron 73 71 72 71

M Calcavecchia 74 74 69 70

E Els (SA) 75 70 70 72

S Hoch 70 71 73 73

288

W Wood 74 74 70 70

*M Kuchar 72 76 68 72

289

S Cink 74 76 69 70

J Huston 77 71 70 71

J Maggert 72 73 72 72

290

S Jones 75 70 75 70

D Frost (SA) 72 73 74 71

B Faxon 73 74 71 72

291

M Bradley 73 74 72 72

292

S Elkington (Aus) 75 75 71 71

293

J Parnevik (Swe) 75 75 71 71

A Magee 74 72 74 73

294

P Blackmar 71 78 75 70

L Janzen 76 74 72 72

F Zoeller 71 74 75 74

J Daly 77 71 71 75

D Love 74 75 67 78

295

T Kite 73 74 74 74

296

B Langer (Ger) 75 73 74 74

P Stankowski 70 80 72 74

297

C Pavin 73 77 72 75

C Stadler 79 68 73 77

298

J Cook 75 73 74 76

300

L Westwood (GB) 74 76 72 78

301

*J Kribel 74 76 76 75

302

G Player (SA) 77 72 78 75

*denotes amateur

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