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Out of the Woods
Steve Rushin
April 20, 1998
Young lions and Tiger and a Golden Bear—Mark O'Meara slipped past a menagerie of rivals to win the Masters
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April 20, 1998

Out Of The Woods

Young lions and Tiger and a Golden Bear—Mark O'Meara slipped past a menagerie of rivals to win the Masters

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Your new masters champion is a multimillionaire who loves cheap motels, endorses Rogaine and suffers so badly from male-pattern blandness that one man approached him at dinner in Augusta last week shouting, "Mark McCumber! Mark McCumber! You're Mark McCumber!"

"Sorry" the man was told. "I'm Mark O'Meara?

For the record, your new Masters champion isn't McCumber, who earned just $3,870 on the PGA Tour last year, but O'Meara, who holed a 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole on Sunday evening to win his first major, in his 15th try at Augusta, at an age—41—when most men are dribbling down the front of their hospital gowns. Or so your previous Masters champion would have you believe.

"Studies show that your physical peak is at age 28, and unless you work out, you lose one percent of your motor skills each year after that," Tiger Woods said earnestly on Saturday evening. Hours later the 22-year-old Woods finished the tournament tied for eighth place, six strokes behind O'Meara, his close friend and neighbor in Orlando's ultraswish Isleworth community. Woods's three-under-par 285 left him only two strokes behind 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus (page 104) and comfortably ahead of 62-year-old Gary Player, to say nothing of 66-year-old Gay Brewer, whose name may sound like a niche publication but was, in fact, near the top of the leader board for most of the tournament's opening round.

It went that way all week for all of golf's young stars. David Duval, 26, was watching TV in the Jones Cabin at 7 p.m. on Sunday, awaiting a possible playoff with O'Meara and 38-year-old Fred Couples, both of whom were also at eight under par, when O'Meara jarred his 20-footer on 18. "Novels with strange and goofy characters are what I like," says the bookish Duval, whose idea of something to read (The Fountainhead) differs from that of most pros (the sprinkler head), but the fact remains: Every player could enjoy last week's story, an epically strange and impossibly goofy four-day serial thriller from Augusta.

For starters, take the finish. It was as absurd and endearing a scenario as you will find in sports, which somehow keeps throwing these little life lessons at us: On Easter Sunday, in his 40th consecutive Masters, in a week in which a plaque was affixed to a drinking fountain between the 16th green and 17th tee to commemorate his achievements and send him off into the September of his years, six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus birdied four of his first seven holes to move within two shots of the lead. This left the other players on the leader board with no galleries and a strong desire to abandon their own matches so they could see what in god's name had gotten into Nicklaus, who hadn't won on the regular Tour since his preposterous Masters victory in 1986.

"You knew exactly where he was as he made his way around the course," said Duval after Sunday's round. "We were at number 2 and heard a roar, so we knew he stuck his shot on 6. We heard another roar, so we knew he made the putt...." So it went all afternoon, a sonic boomlet of Jack-induced joy going up every 20 minutes or so.

When Woods—who won last year's Masters by a record 12 strokes and was expected to do the same for years to come—was asked last week if he could imagine playing in his 40th consecutive Masters, he replied, "God, no. I can't even fathom, I guess, being that old."

But for the most part, this year's principals couldn't fathom being so young, as young as young Woods—or Duval, or Phil Mickelson, 27, or Justin Leonard, 25. The leader entering Sunday was Couples, a man with arthritis in his back and retirement in his heart. "I'll still play golf," he said of his plans to hang it up within five years. "It'll just be every Tuesday at eight o'clock at the club." Couples enjoyed a two-stroke lead over Paul Azinger, also 38, and Mickelson. "I wish I was Tiger's age," Couples said with a sigh on Saturday night, "but when he's 30, I think he's going to be spent."

Would it be any wonder? After teeing off to start the defense of his title on Thursday, Woods received a death threat via the Internet. He was, in accordance with his wishes, informed of the threat by a course official on the 13th tee. (It's a measure of how routine these threats have become that Woods promptly birdied the hole.)

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