Mark O'Meara had hit the putt during a practice round, knowing the hole would be there on the 18th green in the final round of the Masters, but not realizing he would be there with so much at stake.

Neither did anyone else.The cheers on Sunday were for Jack Nicklaus, teasing a breathless gallery with one more run at another green jack-et. And for Fred Couples, who took himself out of contention as quickly as he got back in it with unforgettable shots on the par-5s.

When O'Meara lined up his 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, thousands of fans had already lined the 10th fairway in anticipation of a playoff between him, Couples and David Duval.

"Am I nervous a little bit? Yeah," O'Meara said. "But there was no need to set the playoff. `I can put this in my hands and finish it off.' "

That's what he did, raising both arms defiantly after the putt fell, giving him a 5-under-par 67 for 279 and a one-stroke victory.

"We had a great round, but we got beat by somebody who played a great round the last round of the Masters," said Couples.

A great round was lurking. With only a soft breeze, the table was set for the kind of back-nine charge that makes the Mas-ters special, and there were plenty of players on the lead-er-board who were capable.

Tiger Woods was not one of them. One year after his record 18-under 270 gave him a 12-stroke victory and raised concerns that Augusta was obsolete, Woods never managed to break 70 and finished six strokes back.

"People just don't know how hard this golf course is," Woods said after a round of 70 that included his third three-putt of the week.

For a while, a 58-year-old man with six green jackets made it look easy again. Nicklaus birdied four of the first seven holes, rocking Augusta with roars that only he can generate.

But after getting to 5 under with a birdie on the 15th, his next three putts for birdie all missed by no more than an inch.

"To have all the people out there, knowing that might be the last time you walk in front of them with the chance to do something good was a pretty nice feeling," Nicklaus said after closing with a 68.

O'Meara was a forgotten man, fifth in career earnings with 14 PGA Tour victories, but none of them a major championship. The 41-year-old would have thought no less of himself had he not had a major to his credit at the end of his career, but he never quit trying in 56 previous attempts.

"I know that this game has always been based around performance of major championships," O'Meara said. "I know that there's been comments about why I haven't won a major. I think timing and a little luck - that's what wins major championships."

A hot putter never hurts, especially at Augusta.

The previous four Masters champions had but one three-putt between them - Nick Faldo in 1986. O'Meara had a three-putt par on the second hole of the second round, and no more the rest of the week.

"I've played enough with Mark. That's just how he putts," said Duval, who teamed with O'Meara in the President's Cup. "He's one of the best putters out here, and he makes an awful lot of them."

O'Meara got a lift when he dropped a pair of bombs on the third and fourth holes for birdie, but he saved the best for the end.

O'Meara's birdie putt from 7 feet on the 17th finally made people take notice, if only because it put him in a share of the lead with Couples and Duval.

Couples never lost his composure, but it's a wonder he ever caught up to his tee shot on No. 13. Leading Duval by one, he hooked it so far left that it ripped through the pines and over Rae's Creek before coming to rest on a dirt path. He hit a wedge over the trees to the fairway, then put a 6-iron into the creek on his way to a double bogey.

"I just had a big blunder on 13," Couples said. "That was the deciding blow."

He got it back with a 6-iron to 2 feet for eagle on No. 15, but gave himself only one other chance for birdie - a 10-footer at No. 17. He missed it.

Up ahead, Duval was at 9 under on the 16th tee, having made birdie on five of the previous seven holes and looking like another 20-something player who was going to claim a major.

But he three-putted the 16th, and his birdie attempt on No. 18 - about the same putt O'Meara had - slid beneath the hole.

O'Meara chugged along, with a two-putt birdie on No. 15, a two-putt par on the 16th, before closing with two birdie putts.

He also took time to soak in the moment long before he seized it. He gazed at the beauty of Augusta's azaleas, watched the sun setting as he walked up the 17th fairway.

As for those fans who headed to 10th fairway for the playoff that never happened?

"I did not notice that," O'Meara said.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Masters scores

Mark O'Meara 74-70-68-67-279

Fred Couples 69-70-71-70-280

David Duval 71-68-74-67-280

Jim Furyk 76-70-67-68-281

Paul Azinger 71-72-69-70-282

Jack Nicklaus 73-72-70-68-283

David Toms 75-72-72-64-283