Golf

IN DEFENCE OF THE MASTERS

Mike Weir beat the odds once. Why not twice?

JAMES DEACON April 12 2004
Golf

IN DEFENCE OF THE MASTERS

Mike Weir beat the odds once. Why not twice?

JAMES DEACON April 12 2004

IN DEFENCE OF THE MASTERS

Golf

Mike Weir beat the odds once. Why not twice?

JAMES DEACON

IT WAS NEARLY MIDNIGHT when Mike Weir drove out the gates of Augusta National Golf Club last April 13. After the ceremonies and interviews and dinner with members in the antebellum clubhouse, family and friends had decided to move the party back to the house they’d rented in town. But Weir and his wife Bricia took off by themselves for awhile. They were still in the mood to celebrate, but they hadn’t had a minute alone since he’d tapped in to win the Masters, and they had some steam to blow off privately.

They drove through the darkened city, laughing and talking about what had happened. Winning the Masters had always been his dream, but there’d been plenty of times, especially when he played fringe tours for peanuts and she caddied, when the dream seemed pretty remote. Yet here he was, wearing a new green jacket, a 42 regular with the famous Augusta National crest on the left breast pocket. “It was just the two of us, and we were having a good laugh,” Weir recalls. “We rolled down the windows and started yelling stuff.” What sort of stuff? “I don’t remember,” he says. “Well, I do, but I don’t want to say. We were just really, really happy.”

There aren’t many things Canadian golf fans don’t know about Weir’s historic Sunday at Augusta National. The tiniest details have become lore— the trajectory of his wedge shot on 15 that set up a crucial birdie, the line of the nervy seven-foot putt on 18 that forced the playoff, everything. And with this year’s event beginning on April 8, we’re bound to hear it all again.

The Masters is a huge draw in Canada—it’s the season’s first major championship, the immaculate course is a salve for winter-blasted eyes, and the event coincides with the beginning of a new season in the world’s most golf-mad nation. The final-round telecast in 2003 attracted more than 1.5 million viewers here.

It’s been a wild ride for the man from Bright’s Grove, Ont. The night after his Masters win, a sellout crowd at the Air Canada Centre for a Toronto-Philadelphia playoff game gave him a thunderous standing ovation. He got a rock star reception from the galleries at the 2003 Bell Canadian Open in Hamilton last September. Back at the scene of his greatest triumph, he’s the focus for legions of Canadian duffers. There are dozens of Americans in the field, and handfuls of Aussies, South Africans, Brits, Japanese and Spaniards, but Weir will bear his nation’s rabid expectations alone. Good thing he’s used to it. “Maybe when I was younger, I felt it was a bit of a burden,” he says. “But now I think it just feels very supportive.”

Weir has duties off the course as well, at press conferences and as host of the pastchampions’ dinner on April 6. With the help of Sarnia, Ont., chef Alastair Mackay, an old pal, Weir chose an all-Canadianingredients menu that includes lobster and wild boar canapes, asparagus salad, roasted rack of caribou with sour cherry and parsnip compote and wild berry sabayon for dessert, accompanied by Okanagan wines and five-per-cent beer. It may not be may Arnold Palmer’s usual diet, but it’s a big step up from the cheeseburgers and milkshakes that Tiger Woods served in 1998. “I will definitely try caribou and be happy to do it,” past champ Ben Crenshaw told The Golf Channel. “I’m looking forward to that.” Onlyjack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Woods (2001-02) have ever won back-to-back since the tournament was first contested in 1934. So it’s not surprising that offshore bookmakers rate Weir the sixth-best bet at Augusta, preferring the chances of Woods, Ernie Els, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh—long hitters on what, after several renovations, is a very long golf course. Some other prognosticators give Weir little chance at all: one prominent publication ranked him 15th on the PGA Tour going into 2004. “People can say what they want to say, I guess,” Weir says. But it’s an obvious slight. He stands fifth in the world rankings, seventh on the PGA Tour money list, and he has already successfully defended one of his 2003 titles, capturing the Nissan Open in February.

Maybe it’s the understated personality and slight stature. Except by his play, Weir doesn’t attract attention to himself. He really is the guy you see on TV, even-tempered and modest, ideal traits in a game that demands controlled emotions and humbles even its best practitioners. U.S. media outlets have paid more attention since his Masters win, coaxing a basically private man to become a more public figure. He’s fine in front of the camera, but you sense that he’s working at it. “For me, it’s not a natural thing,” Weir says of celebrity.

Disinterest in the limelight may have saved him from the pitfalls of some firsttime winners of major golf championships. Inundated with big-money offers, they add endorsement commitments and overseas tournaments to their schedules, and their games suffer. But even before his Masters victory, Weir and agent Dan Cimoroni mapped out a strategy just in case he won a major. As a result, Weir has since signed only one more sponsorship deal and plays one more international event a year. “He has a lot on his plate,” Cimoroni says, “but it’s doable.” The proof: Weir tied for third at the U.S. Open and seventh at the PGA, and placed 28th at the British Open, giving him the best overall record in 2003’s majors, and he has a win and two other top-10s this year.

Weir covets his personal time, and he’s taken some heat for it. Reporters were upset last December when he wasn’t available for comment after being named Canadian athlete of the year, ahead of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Eric Gagne. Weir was on holiday at his cabin in Sundance, Utah, with Bricia and their two daughters; his management firm issued a written statement. Cimoroni claims he’s to blame and should have arranged a teleconference, given the significance of the award. But the demand for downtime comes from Weir. “I now say no sometimes,” he says, unapologetic. “You can’t please everyone.” In 1995, heading to an Asian Tour event in Jakarta, the cab Weir was taking to the golf course broke down and he had to lug his bag through a muddy stream before hitching a ride the rest of the way. He shot a dismal 80, with a nine on a par three. Back then, he says, “I had a tough time thinking I would win the Masters.” Now, even though the odds are against him, it would be foolhardy to say he couldn’t win again. Weir’s greatest strengths are his focus, his ability to learn from past experiences and his persistence. “Until you do it, you’re never sure if you can handle that type of pressure,” he says. “So when I’m in that situation again, I know I can.” You’ll notice he said “when,” not “if.” [ffl

james.deacon@macleans.rogers.com