AUGUSTA, GA. - The practice range at the Augusta National Golf Club was busy Wednesday morning, as it has been all week in advance of the first round of the Masters. Spectators, or "patrons," as the club calls visitors, followed their favourite players, and Canadians waited each morning to see whether Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters winner who remains their golfer of choice, would appear. He suffered a rib injury during the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando three weeks ago, and pulled out of that tournament after making the cut.
Watching Mr. Weir hit some balls on Monday at the course, spectators could see they travelled at only half speed. He hit some faster Tuesday morning, and then chipped and putted around a few holes that afternoon. On Wednesday, he went at the ball harder, still on the range, played the back nine alone, and participated in the annual Par-3 contest. His long-time friends. Jimmy and Judy Viglasky, from his hometown of Brights Grove, Ont., followed, as did their 15-year-old daughter, Jackie, who caddied. That constituted important short-game practice.
It's been a decade since Mr. Weir won in euphoric fashion at Augusta – a moment that ignited the game in Canada – and half that since he's won on the PGA Tour, but he's never stopped believing he can regain his winning form. Despite multiple injuries to his right elbow and now his ribs, creeping age and nagging self-doubt, he continues to practise, tinker and analyze.
Mr. Weir is scheduled to start the opening round at 9:06 a.m. EST with Lee Westwood and Jim Furyk.
His practice sessions and the nine holes he played have given him no indication that things will get worse. He said he's felt progressively better since Monday.
"Yeah, I'm going to play," Mr. Weir said. "The good thing is that there's no high rough here. I don't have to go after everything [in the rough]. If this was the U.S. or British Open [where there's high rough], it would be a little risky."
Grant Waite, Mr. Weir's swing coach and former PGA Tour winner, has been at his side during most of Mr. Weir's practice this week. At one point, Mr. Weir chatted with Mr. Waite after his session on the range, making various moves with his arms while pointing to his ribs. Dr. David Petron, from Draper, Utah, where the golfer lives, is in Augusta with him. He told Mr. Weir that the worst damage he could do would be to set him back to where he was when he injured himself in Orlando.
On Wednesday, Mr. Weir said he was swinging at about 80-per-cent speed, and that he didn't feel he could go after shots full out. He was driving the ball 285 yards with the roll on the firm fairways. But he acknowledged that he would need to be cautious during the tournament rounds.
"Everything gets ramped up out there," he said. "The temptation is to try to hit it a little harder. I'm going to try to keep the same pace I had on the range."
A game gone south
Uncertainty hangs over Mr . Weir's start at the Masters, matched only by the feeling that hangs over his entire game. Johnny Miller, a U.S. and British Open champion, has said that the longest walk in golf is from the practice tee to the first tee. What comes easily on the practice tee doesn't always come readily on the course during a tournament. Ten years ago, Mr. Weir had no problem taking his game from the range to the course. Then 32, he won the Masters on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff against Len Mattiace. He became the first Canadian to win a men's professional major, and the first left-handed golfer to win the Masters.
But the walk from the practice area to the course has since become a long one for Mr. Weir. He didn't make a cut on the PGA Tour the past two years, when he shot in the 80s seven times. A winner of seven PGA Tour events in addition to the Masters, he has shown some improvement this year, playing nine tournaments and making three cuts, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month. Then he had to withdraw.
Meanwhile, the hype has grown as Mr. Weir's date with the 10th anniversary of his Masters win has approached. Project10, a Toronto-based film company, has produced the documentary Four Days in April. Mr. Weir has been featured on the Golf Channel and in Golf Magazine and the PGA Tour conducted a teleconference to handle the many requests for his time. This was a month after Mr. Weir played the Honda Classic at the PGA National course in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., the first tournament of the four-event Florida swing that players consider the run-up to the Masters.
Mr. Weir practised for eight hours at the Old Palm Golf Club two days prior to the Honda's first round, as Mr. Waite watched, and was on the range again the next day. They used Trackman, a sophisticated computer program that many tour golfers use to measure ball speed, clubhead speed, launch angle, spin rates and a variety of other factors. Mr. Weir hit a shot, and then examined the computer screen. He did this repeatedly.
At lunch in the player's dining area, Mr. Weir spoke about the state of his game.
"It's not as automatic as I want," he said. He's still thinking on the course rather than simply reacting to his target and swinging. He won the Masters by reacting, not by worrying about his swing mechanics. He believes he can get back to that state of mind, which is really a state of no-mind.
"It's been very frustrating," he said. "I know I'm a better player than my scores have shown. It's demoralizing sometimes. You're away from home, and you're not making headway. But I'm seeing progress. It's good to see positive signs. I keep thinking of the strides I'm making."
Mr. Weir has shot in the 60s three times this year. He's trying not only to recover some form, but also to win again. And while he played the back nine Wednesday, his brother Jim recounted the final holes of the 2003 Masters.
"It's been pretty neat reminiscing out here," he said, walking on the pine needles right of the 13th fairway. He's moving in August into a house on the Huron Oaks club where his brother learned the game and practised for hours, past darkness. The house is on Mike Weir Drive, he said, laughing.
Growing up, Mr. Weir never imagined a street would be named after him. Winning a Masters will do that.
Standing over the putt to get into the Masters playoff, Mr. Weir told himself, "It's not going to end here." He used an expletive before "end." Mr. Weir rolled the putt in, dead centre, and offered a modest fist pump that became the symbol for various enterprises, including wine and course design, that developed subsequent to his winning the Masters. Sports Illustrated magazine featured Mr. Weir on the cover of its Masters issue. The cover headline read, "A Star is Born."
A prevailing optimism
Mr. Weir did not think much about the 10th anniversary until people began to bring it up. He is not one to look back, and believes he will contend in tournaments again, and win. Otherwise, he wouldn't be putting in the hours on the range. He believes he will again walk from the practice tee to the first tee expecting to play well. He hit a perfect shot on the 11th hole Wednesday. He hit a fine shot over Rae's Creek on the par-three 12th within five feet of the hole. But he also pulled drives into the trees on the 14th and 15th holes. He's up against it this week.
"I always give it my all," Mr. Weir said during that lunch at the Honda Classic. "If I have to wedge it in [for par] I'm thinking I'll wedge it in. I know that it pays off eventually. The game has been great to me. If you had asked me 15 years ago if I would have had the kind of career I've had, I'd have taken it in a heartbeat. It's been a great ride."
Mr. Weir remains undaunted.
"I made it because of my belief system, my belief in myself, no matter what was said and what was actually going on in my game," he says in the documentary. "It didn't affect my confidence in myself, my belief that I would figure out a way to become a tour player."
He became a tour player, and a major champion. Ten years after he provided a singular moment in Canadian sports history, he is injured and his self-confidence is bruised. But in important ways he remains the same golfer he was then: He is looking forward, and he believes better days are ahead.