Mark O’Meara doesn’t have a bad life. He plays golf for a living, and finds time to fly fish and hunt when he’s not on the course. He’s sometimes able to drag his good friend Tiger Woods along to the river.
Mark’s 22 year sojourn on the PGA Tour has been impressive. Since being named rookie of the year in 1981, he’s notched sixteen professional victories, including both the Masters and British Open in 1998, and the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on four different occasions. He lives in the Orlando, Florida area with his wife Alicia, daughter Michelle and son Shaun Robert.
I reached Mark by phone as he was playing golf near his home, practicing for the upcoming Masters tournament. Using a headset, he chatted with me about his passion for fly fishing without missing a stroke; the whoosh of a shot could be heard periodically. Tiger Woods was part of his group.
CHRIS SANTELLA: It seems that a lot of golfers I know fly fish and vice versa. Why do you think that is?
MARK O’MEARA: I think the main correlation between golf and fly fishing is that you can pursue either activity by yourself, or you can do it with friends. Sometimes I’ll golf by myself to focus in on an aspect of my game, other times I’ll play with some buddies. When I’m out with friends, we chat – and sometimes make a few friendly bets. It’s less serious. It’s the same with fishing. When I’m by myself, I’ll really get locked in to the river. When I fish with friends, we spend half the day fishing, half the day talking. It’s really fun to watch other folks work a run. You catch their excitement when a fish takes.
CS: Is there a moment in fly fishing where your concentration approaches that of a clutch putt?
MO: Sure. If you see a fish feeding on the surface or porpoising, and you figure that you might only have a shot or two at getting a good drift, you’re going to focus in. Just as in golf, though, I find that my concentration spurts in and out. There are probably times when I could concentrate more. One great thing about fishing is that I’m so far away from the golf course. Sometimes when I ‘m fishing, I think about nothing. It’s a great relief from the stress of the tour.
CS: When did you start fly fishing?
MO: I’ve been a big bass fisherman for a long time. I started getting heavily into fly fishing about 5 years ago. We have a house out in Park City, Utah, which is close to the Provo River. I began fishing out there with a friend named Monty Howard (of Spinner Fall Fly Shop). He taught me how to throw a fly. My first fish on a fly was a brown trout from the Provo. We were indicator nymphing. I remember setting the hook a little bit too hard on my first strike – that’s a bass fisherman’s instinct. I realized I needed a little more finesse with trout.
I hardly ever pick up my baitcasting rods anymore. Once you start fly casting, it’s hard to go back. Fly fishing is much more satisfying…though relative to golf, I’m not sure what my fly fishing handicap would be. I still do a little bass fishing when I’m home. We live on a chain of lakes, and I’ll throw bass bugs and poppers. Sometimes I’ll just practice my casting in the driveway to keep in touch – it’s somewhat like going out on the range. My kids – Shaun (who’s 12) and Michelle (who’s 15) both like to fish, and are pretty good at it. I haven’t been able to get my wife interested. She likes to sit on the bank and read.
CS: Do you pack a fly rod with your golf equipment when you’re on the road?
MO: When I was bass fishing, I would usually bring a rod along. Now, I generally don’t. These days, I set my golf schedule around my fishing schedule (laughs). I try to plan a lot of fishing trips and leave the fishing for those times. When I’m competing, I focus on the golf.
CS: When time permits, where do you like to fish?
MO: When I’m out in Utah, I like to fish the Provo and the Green River. The Green is an awesome fishery – the system’s been very well managed. I have some good friends over in Ireland, and I like to go over there and fish for Atlantic Salmon. Actually, I’m going over the week after the Master’s (which concludes on April 14). I went up to Alaska last summer and fished for Chinooks. We were getting 20 to 30 pound fish. A favorite of mine is the Deschutes in Oregon. I like to get out there in September to fish for steelhead.
I’d love to get to Argentina and New Zealand sometime. I also haven’t had a chance to do much saltwater fly fishing. I’d love to try bonefish or tarpon. Chico Fernandez has been kind enough to offer to take me out. Hopefully, I’ll take him up on that soon.
C.S.: Do you have a favorite species to fish for?
M.O.: Steelhead are my favorite. They’re so rewarding, yet so frustrating. I enjoy casting with a Spey rod, which is the way we fish out on the Deschutes. When you get a steelie on, your adrenaline level goes so high. I also enjoy Atlantic Salmon. The fish – and the tactics – are pretty similar to steelhead.
C.S.: What sort of outfit are you casting these days?
M.O.: For single handed rods, I favor Scott. For Spey rods, I have a Fly Logic that I got from Dec Hogan, who guides out on the Deschutes and is an excellent caster and instructor. I also have a Burkheimer, which is custom made in Washington state.
C.S.: What’s one of your more memorable fishing adventures?
M.O.: Well, a couple of years back, I was steelhead fishing out on the Deschutes. I fished hard with a guide for two days, but came up completely empty-handed. I went out on the last day on my own without a boat and fished from the road. That day, I caught six steelhead! In the lodge that night, I was shaking. It was such an exciting feeling, like I’d shot a 59 or had won a major tournament.
C.S.: I understand that you do some fishing with Tiger Woods. Does he enjoy it as much as you do?
M.O.: I’ve had Tiger out there a number of times. He enjoys it when there’s a hatch on, and the fish are coming to the surface. He also enjoys throwing the Spey rod. He’s not much on nymphing, though. I think it’s because he’s a little young. I think the patience factor comes into play faster for a young guy.
C.S. I have to ask this. Who can cast further?
M.O.: Let me ask him. (addresses Tiger). Hey Tiger, who casts a fly rod further? (to me) He’s pointing to me, so I guess I cast further. But today, his drives are going 60 yards past mine!
(this piece originally appeared in Fly Rod & Reel magazine in 2003)