In 1979, Long Beach State golfer Mark O’Meara, recently named an NCAA All-American, headed north along the California coast to compete in the California State Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links. The Mission Viejo native eventually beat Lennie Clements, 8 and 7, to capture the title.
Not long after, O’Meara arrived at Canterbury Golf Club in Cleveland, Ohio, for the U.S. Amateur. The hopefuls included future PGA Tour players David Ogrin, Scott Hoch, Bob Tway, Bobby Clampett, Payne Stewart, Fred Couples and defending champion John Cook. Cook, born in Toledo but raised in Southern California, was an Ohio State University All-American and favored son with a mighty home-course advantage.
O’Meara thumped Cook, 8 and 7, in the 36-hole match-play final, capping an eventful summer. But the biggest upset came 36 years later, when O"Meara made a startling revelation: The man who had just been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015 – in St. Andrews, no less – was not sure that he had a future in the game.
“Winning the U.S. Amateur meant the world to me,” he said, “because I wasn’t a very good player yet. I wasn’t like these kids today who are so young, so skilled, so poised. I wasn’t like that. I loved match play, because I didn’t feel the pressure that stroke play places on every shot. But when I won, I thought, well, why not?”
It may be hard to believe today, but it wasn’t always easy for young golfers in the 1970s. “It wasn’t too cool, that’s for sure,” O’Meara said. “But when I played with these other talented guys – they were good guys, too, from all over the country – I realized that we were in it together. When I played USGA events, especially the U.S. Amateur, it made me realize how special the game and the people closest to it really are.”
There are some pretty cool perks for U.S. Amateur champions. Mark earned his way into the 1980 Masters, and he and his father, Bob, a furniture salesman, got to drive up Magnolia Lane together. Mark was playing practice rounds at Augusta National, meeting his golf idols, staying in the fabled Crow’s Nest and preparing to play the first round with Fuzzy Zoeller, the 1979 Masters champion.
“I don’t have any idea how I did it, but I managed to par the first hole,” O’Meara said. “I didn’t make too many after that, though. I believe that I shot 81-80, or something like that, and missed the cut. So, we are leaving Augusta and my dad asks me if I am doing okay.
“I said, ‘Dad, no matter what happens to me, whether I get to be a pro or not, I got to play in the Masters one time. It never would have happened if I didn’t win the U.S. Amateur…’ Then, 18 years later, I am watching my putt go in on the 72nd hole to win the Masters. I honestly believe that the day I held the U.S. Amateur trophy for the first time, looking at the names of the greatest golfers who ever played the game etched on the side, gave me the belief to match the will to improve that I always had.”
O’Meara turned pro in 1980 and kept grinding until he earned his breakthrough victory at the 1984 Greater Milwaukee Open. From there, 16 PGA Tour wins, four other wins around the globe and a magical season in 1998, when he captured the Masters, The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale Golf Club and the PGA Tour’s Jack Nicklaus Award as the season’s top player. Toss in two Champions Tour victories and career earnings north of $22 million and it’s hard for anyone to believe his self-esteem should waver, but O’Meara remains awed by the experience.
“Everyone who plays this great game of golf realizes how special it is. From Pebble to Canterbury, Augusta to Royal Birkdale, and the World Golf Hall of Fame in the birthplace of golf, is more humbling than I can describe.”
And he always will have Pebble, site of his California Amateur –and 25 percent of his professional victories.
“I drove up to play Pebble Beach for the first time in 1978,” O’Meara said. ”At that time, the California Amateur was always played there. I had seen it before on TV, but I never could appreciate just how beautiful it was. It inspired me then, just as it does today.
“I won in 1985, the last time it was called the Bing Crosby Invitational Pro-Am, but I was most proud to have won it in 1991 with my father as my partner. No other sport would allow us to have a moment like that. That is just one of the reasons that Pebble remain the course I would play if I was allowed to play just one for the rest of my life.”
Even if he had just one course to play for the rest of his life, he would have a lifetime of memories to reflect on between shots. To hear him tell it, it would not have been possible without a special week at the U.S. Amateur.
David Chmiel is manager of Members content for the USGA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org