Chapter 1: Playing for History
Mark O'Meara knew all this. He knew that he would always be asked about not winning a major title until and unless he won one. Publicly, O'Meara repeated the mantra that players in his position repeat if only to keep themselves sane: "If I never win a major, I'll still have had a very good career," he said over and over when the question came up. Then he would point out that he had won the U.S. Amateur title in 1979 and many people considered that a major. "I've never won a professional major," he would say.
Euphemisms aside, O'Meara knew that if he hadn't won fourteen times on the PGA Tour and hadn't been one of the game's more consistent players for fifteen years, he would never have had to answer the dreaded "major" question. But he had been asked the question repeatedly, enough times that he had half-jokingly said earlier in the week that he would like to win the Masters if only so he would never have to answer the question again.
O'Meara was far too pleasant a man to snap at anyone for asking the question, but he was sensitive about it. A year earlier, when Jaime Diaz of Sports Illustrated had written a piece headlined "King of the Bs," about O'Meara, he had been hurt and insulted. He believed his record was better than that of a 'B' player - even the best 'B' player. But deep down he knew the point Diaz was making. You could win at Pebble Beach forever - O'Meara had won there five times - and it wouldn't be good enough until you won on one of golf's four special weekends.
Now, as Duval lined up his putt at 15, O'Meara and Couples were walking off the 14th tee. Duval led them both by two shots, but their mindsets at that moment were very different. Couples had believed all week that he was going to win the tournament. He had won in 1992, and everything seemed to be aligned for him to win it again in 1998. He had been led or been tied for the lead ever since Thursday afternoon, when he had started birdie-birdie-birdie. But now, in the wake of the double bogey that had caused all the murmuring at 15, Couples was trying to regroup emotionally.
O'Meara had no such traumas to deal with. He had trailed Couples almost all day and was two strokes behind him standing on the 13th tee. Fifteen minutes later, he and Couples had walked off the green dead even. He knew Duval was two shots and two holes ahead, but there was plenty of time to catch him. At a moment when all sorts of crazy thoughts could have been raging inside his head, O'Meara felt relaxed. One more time he told himself what he had been saying all day long: "When you've been in position to win on tour, you've done a good job closing the deal. Today should be no different."
Of course it was different, as Duval's pounding heart could attest. He had spent the whole day playing the "it's just another tournament" game, but it wasn't working now. It hadn't been working since the 10th hole, when he had chipped in to get within two shots of the lead and had realized that another of golf's oft-repeated clichés was not very much in play: "The Masters doesn't begin until the back nine on Sunday." It was Sunday, he was on the back nine, and the tournament was very much under way.
Duval has always been a deliberate player. He took even more time than usual looking at his eagle putt, knowing what making it would mean. Finally, he stood over the ball, took the putter back, and watched the ball roll right at the hole. "Halfway there," he said, "I thought I'd made it." So did everyone else. The crowd began to stand in anticipation of the ball dropping. "Three feet out, I was sure I'd made it," Duval said.
But nothing is certain on the greens at Augusta until the ball actually disappears into the hole. This time, at the last instant, the ball took a tiny turn left, just enough to leave it an inch from the left edge of the cup. Duval stared in disbelief for a couple of seconds as the crowd oohed in shared dismay. Again, the sunglasses hid his emotions. He walked up and tapped in for the birdie.
Furyk had made a bogey six after his trip to the water and was now at five under. Duval was nine under. He had a three-stroke lead on Couples and O'Meara as he walked to the 16th tee. "That's what I kept telling myself," he said later. "I still had a three-shot lead. I knew Fred and Mark still had 15 to play, so you had to figure they would at least get to seven [under] there. But I was thinking if I made three pars, the absolute worst-case scenario was a playoff."
Which is why he played his six-iron shot conservatively at the par-three 16th to the right side of the green, away from the water. If he had been tied for the lead or a shot behind, he would have aimed at the flag, located, as it always was on Sunday, on the left side of the green where the water could come into play. Leading by three, Duval wasn't about to mess with the water. His shot landed safe and dry on the right side, but instead of funneling toward the hole, as shots often do on that green, it came to a halt, 40 feet to the right of the flag. "That meant, no matter what I did with my first putt, I was going to have an eight-to-ten-foot putt for par," Duval said. It was an eight-footer, and it stopped rolling inches shy of the cup. Bogey. The lead was two.
Duval parred 17 and parred 18, missing a 20-foot putt for birdie at 18 that started out left and stayed left, ending up two feet below the hole. When he walked off the green, Couples and O'Meara were playing the 17th hole. Couples had bounced back from the disaster at 13 to eagle the 15th, meaning that he and Duval were now tied. O'Meara had birdied 15 and just missed his birdie putt at 16. He was one shot back of the two leaders.