An Open-and-shut case for tour veteran O'Meara


POTOMAC -- Mark O'Meara played golf a couple of days ago at the Woodmont Country Club in Rockville and had a pretty good day: An eagle and 10 birdies. They were spread over two rounds, a fairly exhausting assignment, and it was all for naught.

The event was a sectional qualifier for next week's U.S. Open up on Long Island and Mark wasn't among the players making it into the main draw at Shinnecock Hills.

Wait a minute! Here's a guy who has won about $5.5 million in his 15 seasons on the PGA Tour. He holds nine tournament titles, including the Honda Classic in Florida three months ago. He has been on three Ryder Cup squads and has been in the top 20 on the money list seemingly forever. What's going on with his being required to qualify?

O'Meara had just carded a 5-under-par 66 to grab a spot among the first-round leaders at the Kemper Open yesterday when this anomaly came up. "To tell you the truth," he said, "I'm looking forward to being off next week. I'll either be in Bermuda or Key West and that's fine with me and my family.

"Sure, I'd like to be at the Open; after all, it's our national championship. But taking a break and getting away might be good. When I showed up at Woodmont, guys were asking me, 'What are you doing here at qualifying?' Everybody figures you win an event on tour that must qualify you. But it doesn't. I don't know what the U.S. Golf Association thinks and it runs the tournament."

Earlier, moments after combining an eagle with five birdies and a couple of bogeys, O'Meara bounced into an interview room with, "finally done. Five hours. Welcome to the tour."

It was more a tone of resignation, not upset, same as the Open disappointment. "Funny thing is, I'm qualified for the British Open, which you can bet I'll be at, but not my own national championship," he said. "Funny process. Oh well, Al Unser Jr. won the Indy 500 last year and failed to qualify for this year's race."

O'Meara was flip about the whole thing, but you could tell he was hurt.

As for his round, it was uneventful for more than an hour "until I got to the fifth hole, No. 14 actually since I started on the 10th tee. I hit a 3-iron [off the 301-yard, par-4] tee and followed that up with a 7-iron. It hit about six feet in front of the flag, rolled up and banged into the pin and dropped in."

He was off to the races, dropping birdie putts on half the next six holes. His effort of 66 matched that of another early starter, Jeff Maggert, who dropped four putts of 15 to 25 feet while carding five birdies and 13 pars.

"That's the most consistent I've been on the greens in quite awhile and it lends itself into other parts of your game coming around," he said. "When you're not putting well, you put pressure on your irons to get you up close and that part suffers. When you got it in the back of your mind that you have a good chance on any putt of 15 to 20 feet or so, you relax on your approach shots and they fall into place."

Speaking of things falling into place, that was the situation with two-time winner Vijay Singh almost from the time he got out of bed. Off the first tee shortly after 8 a.m. yesterday, Singh dropped putts of five, three and two feet to go 3-under on the first three holes.

Another birdie arrived on the sixth from five feet. And another at No. 9 from two feet. His 6-under 65 was one shot better than the day before when he picked up $625 for tying Jeff Sluman and Brad Bryant atop the pro-am field.

"I got away with a lot of good iron play," the native of Fiji said, "and had some nice par saves from six feet."

His trap play wasn't bad either. He got up and down from bunkers four times.

It was the shot on No. 12 he'll remember, though. He had a drive on a par-4 trickle into a creek: "There was water underneath the ball, but I could take a stance." Swoosh. The ball made it to the edge of the green and he was soaked but saved par. Not bad for a guy who taught himself how to play this exasperating game.

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