AUGUSTA — There was an anticipation for the 2018 Masters to potentially be one of the greatest in history.
At the midway point, it doesn’t seem to be disappointing. The leaderboard is packed with top players like Patrick Reed, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. It will be interesting when we look back on it in 20 years how will it be remembered.
Looking back at the 1998 Masters, it is safe to say it is one of the most unlikely to have ever happened. From an amateur from Georgia Tech announcing his presence on the big stage to a certain 58-year-old six-time champion making a final run, to the eventual champion — it may have been one of the most entertaining and unexpected Masters ever played.
The amateur was Matt Kuchar, then a 19-year-old sophomore business major with the Yellow Jackets, who shot rounds of 72-76-68-72 and finished in a tie for 21st. With an engaging smile and plenty of game, Kuchar quickly endeared himself to the Augusta National fans.
When Bobby Jones created the Masters, a big part of the tournament was always amateur golf, and Kuchar, who has since won seven times on the PGA Tour, including the Players Championship, embraced the moment to its fullest. The event, like with most players, has become close to his heart, and it has never wavered.
“It’s so exciting to be at the Masters, so exciting,” Kuchar said. “Every year, I come looking forward to this week and, every year, you get such a buzz on the driving range, in the practice rounds, that you can’t wait for golf to get going.
“It’s hard to believe (it’s been 20 years). I thought back to walking up 18 with my dad on the bag and you remember each day, kind of going, ‘How special is this?’ I kind of felt that (Thursday), just as the shadows were long and late in the afternoon, so I thought back to ’98 and walking up with my dad.”
Like Kuchar, Jack Nicklaus first came to Augusta as an amateur. Jones said Nicklaus played a game with which he was not familiar. Nicklaus then proved Jones right by becoming the tournament’s greatest champion.
Earlier that week in 1998, Nicklaus — 12 years since his last victory in 1986 — was presented with a plaque on the course, which is now located between the 16th and 17th holes. During the presentation, tournament chairman Jack Stephens spoke about the six victories listed on the plaque, but, just in case something else historic happened, Stephens added, “We left a little room at the bottom.”
That may have been foreshadowing as the “Golden Bear” proved he could still growl. He started his final round with birdies on four of his first seven holes to pull within two shots of the lead.
He was still two back when he looked over a 12-foot putt for birdie on 16.
Unfortunately, for what seemed like the only time of his career at Augusta National, when he needed to make a putt on No. 16, he didn’t. A huge groan went through the Georgia pines. Nicklaus parred in, shot 68 and finished sixth.
“Well, I played the tournament on one leg,” Nicklaus told Golfweek Magazine this week. “I had my hip replaced nine months later. I could still walk, but wasn’t very good. I don’t remember much about the tournament. I couldn’t tell you what score I shot. All I do remember is (my son) Steve caddied for me. I got to the 15th hole, and I looked at Steve and I said, ‘Steve, if we finish the same way I finished in ’86, we’re going to win this golf tournament.’ I didn’t. We didn’t win.
“What did I finish, sixth? Yeah. It was OK for an old guy.”
That left six of the top 10 players in the world — including No. 1 Tiger Woods, who had won the Masters by 12 shots the previous year, and No. 2 Ernie Els — in contention to win the tournament.
Heading into the ’98 Masters, Mark O’Meara, who was ranked 14th, was on the short list of best players never to win a major. He had won the U.S. Amateur and figured out how to win at Pebble Beach five times, but he never seemed to get over the last hurdle to becoming a major champion.
O’Meara started the final round two shots behind 1992 champion Fred Couples, but the battle was soon joined by another former Georgia Tech standout, David Duval, the 10th-ranked player in the world.
By the time O’Meara birdied the 15th hole, he was two behind Duval and one back of Couples.
It set the stage for something that hadn’t happened in 40 years.
At that time, the last person to birdie the 17th and 18th holes to win the Masters was Arnold Palmer in 1958.
O’Meara now had that chance, but it seemed like he may have been the only one that knew it.
“It was a tournament where you were never thinking Mark was going to win and then he did,” said ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, who, at the time, was an anchor at Golf Channel. “All day, it looked like you were looking elsewhere — Fred Couples, David Duval — even Jim Nantz, it was like all of a sudden it hit him: ‘Oh my, Mark O’Meara has a putt to win the Masters.’”
After making a birdie on 17, O’Meara had a 20-foot putt from right of the hole on 18 to win. Historically, it was a putt no one ever seemed to make.
Only, this time, O’Meara did.
“I don’t think anyone expected me to win,” he said. “I was just as shocked, and if you look at my face on the video, I’m looking like, what just happened?”
At the award ceremony, the then-41-year-old had his green jacket presented to him by the 22-year-old Woods, who considered O’Meara a big brother figure. O’Meara said, as he was putting the jacket on, Woods whispered in his ear, “You deserve this.”
The leaderboard bared that out.
Fourteen of the top 16 finishers, including the top nine, went on to win at least one major championship. The list included Jim Furyk finishing fourth, Paul Azinger fifth, Woods eighth, Phil Mickelson in a tie for 12th and Els in a tie for 16th. Overall, the top 23 players eventually combined to collect 54 major titles, and O’Meara added his second later that summer by winning the British Open at Royal Birkdale.
On Friday, O’Meara announced that this year’s Masters would be his last. The last time he made the cut was 2015, and now at 61 years old and after rounds of 78 and 81, he said it’s time for him to leave.
“It’s a big golf course for me nowadays,” O’Meara said “You’ve got kids out here regularly hitting it 315 (yards), and I’m hitting it 265. That makes it awfully tough to compete.”
O’Meara also said he doesn’t want to come out and shoot 78, 79 or 80, just to be out there playing. He said he’s not one of the legends, like Tom Watson or Jack Nicklaus, that the fans clamor to see.
“I’m just a guy,” O’Meara said.
He’s just a guy that was the most unlikely winner of what was one of the most unlikely Masters in history.