Originally created 07/20/98

How sweet it is!



SOUTHPORT, England -- With every shot in the playoff, the gallery stampeded down the fairway behind Mark O'Meara and Brian Watts, anxious to see what other heroics Royal Birkdale had in store.

Only there were no miracle shots left at the British Open, and none required.

All O'Meara ever asked of himself Sunday was to keep his composure and draw on the experience of a 41-year-old Masters champion.

Now, O'Meara has a claret jug to go with his green jacket.

"I use past experience to my advantage," said O'Meara, who closed with a 2-under 68 and beat Watts by two strokes in the four-hole playoff. "Even though I'm nervous, more times than not I've been able to finish off the deal."

He didn't produce a birdie-birdie finish like Tiger Woods or knock in a wedge out of the clumpy rough on No. 18 like 17-year-old Justin Rose. And O'Meara didn't need an improbable shot from an impossible lie out of the bunker like Brian Watts.

The final stroke was a 3-foot par putt, but the result was the same as it was three months ago at Augusta National -- O'Meara, with arms stretched high and a defiant look on his face.

He is the first player since Nick Faldo in 1990 to win the Masters and the British Open. And at 41, he is the oldest player ever to win two majors in the same year.

O'Meara and Watts, a 32-year-old Oklahoman who plays on the Japanese tour, both finished at 280, the first time even par has won the Open since Greg Norman in 1986 at Turnberry.

Woods roared from behind with birdies on three of the last four holes and narrowly missed the playoff. He closed with a 66, tied with Scotland's Raymond Russell for the best round of the day, to finish at 281.

Russell, Jim Furyk, Jesper Parnevik and the English amateur Rose were at 282.

Not even the best in his own neighborhood at the start of the year, O'Meara is now the champion of golf.

"Of all the championships in the world, this in my opinion is the most special," O'Meara said.

The playoff was the first since John Daly beat Costantino Rocca at St. Andrews in 1995 to begin a four-year stretch of American dominance across the Atlantic.

And it was made possible by the last of three unbelievable shots that left the British gallery breathless.

Watts, who has never contended in a major championship, saved par from a terrible lie in a deep bunker on the 72nd hole to force the playoff -- stroke play over the last four holes.

On the way to the 15th hole to start the playoff, O'Meara's caddie, Jerry Higginbotham, turned to him and said, "Just pretend you've got Tiger out for an emergency nine."

O'Meara routinely wins practice rounds against Woods, who lives in the pricey Orlando community of Isleworth along with Ernie Els and Lee Janzen, both two-time U.S. Open champions.

Watts, however, wasn't up to the task.

He missed a 3-foot birdie putt on the par-5 15th, missed another birdie putt for 12 feet on the next hole and only stayed in the game by saving par on the 17th with a 10-foot putt.

O'Meara never wavered, expressionless as he walked down the fairway -- always a safe place to be at Birkdale. He birdied the 15th from 5 feet and made two-putt pars the rest of the way.

Watts' last hope was to hole a bunker shot at No. 18, but he shook his head as soon as the ball emerged from a splash of sand and scurried 20 feet past the hole.

Watts two-putted for bogey, his first on any of the last six holes over the four rounds of the tournament.

"I knew I had to hole the bunker shot to have any chance," Watts said. "If you would have told me at the beginning of this week that I'd be in position to win the Open championship, I wouldn't have believed you.

"I'm still proud of myself."

O'Meara won $520,000 for the victory, his 23rd worldwide in a career that is just now starting to blossom. Watts won $329,000 for second, which should be good enough to qualify for the PGA Tour next year.

Only a stiff breeze blew in from the Irish Sea, although it came in a different direction and made the final two holes play into the wind.

That didn't keep Watts, Woods and Rose from sending the gallery into a near-frenzy, each shot more stunning than the one before.

First it was Woods, pumping his fist in rapid-fire succession with each of his three birdies over the final four holes. Needing a birdie on No. 18 to tie for the lead at 1 over, he rammed home a 30-footer and let out a roar.

"Unfortunately, it wasn't good enough," Woods said after his best finish in a major since he won the Masters last year.

Then came Rose, his innocent smile as sweet as the name implies. Impervious to the pressure of being an amateur mixing it up with best in the world, he holed a wedge on No. 18 from 45 yards away in the nasty rough for a 69 that put him at 2-over 282.

He raised his hands and smiled into the heavens, soaking in a performance that captivated a country.

"To finish like that was unexplainable," Rose said. "It's just one of those magic moments."

But there was more piece of magic left at Royal Birkdale on a day when the iron gray clouds finally gave way to the sun for a pressure-packed final round.

Up ahead, O'Meara made his fourth birdie of the back nine, a 15-footer on the 17th that gave him the lead at even par. He left his birdie putt 4 feet short on the 18th, but tapped in with the calmness of a Masters champion.

Watts, who had blown two birdie opportunities on the back nine that would have given him room to breathe down the stretch, clinched his teeth in a determined celebration when he sank a 12-footer for birdie at No. 17 that drew him even with O'Meara.

But his drive on the 18th found the clumpy rough left of the fairway, and his approach took one last hop into the bunker, stopping on the down-slope of the sand -- no guarantee he would even be able to knock it on the green.

O'Meara sat on a towel behind the 18th green to watch, and even he had to appreciate a shot that ranks in major championship history with Tom Watson's miracle chip-in at Pebble Beach in the 1982 U.S. Open.

Digging in the sand with his left foot, his right foot flexed at an angle on the grass above, Watts took the club back twice, hovered over the ball and then blasted out.

The ball hopped slightly to the right and rolled to within a foot of the cup for a tap-in par, setting the table for even more drama.

O'Meara made sure there was none left.

Furyk, hoping to return the majors to the 20-something crowd, also played steady for his first time in contention. But he didn't take advantage of birdie putts when he had them, and he finally fell back when a 10-foot par putt rimmed all the way around the cup on No. 15.

He finished with an even-par 70. In four rounds of fickle British weather -- two that featured wind gusts up to 40 mph -- Furyk never shot worse than 72.

Parnevik, playing in the final group for the third time at the British Open, also closed with a 70.

O'Meara had come close before at Birkdale, playing in the final group in 1991 when Ian Baker-Finch shot a 29 on the front side to run away with the claret jug.

This time, it's going home with O'Meara.