Every golf tournament for every player is an experiment in which he or she is trying to answer one question: "Can I take my game from the range to the course?" The Sony Open, the first full-field tournament on this year's PGA Tour, provides the usual laboratory, especially for those golfers who have been struggling with their form.
When it comes to Canadian interest, the focus as it pertains to the experiment is primarily on Mike Weir. The 42-year-old told Golf Channel the day before the first round that he's looking forward to playing a full schedule this year. He relied mostly on sponsors' exemptions last year, when he missed the cut in each of the 14 tournaments he entered. Weir is more in control of his schedule this year, and will be able to get a far better read on the state of his game because he'll play more consecutive tournaments. The Sony Open is the first of at least four tournaments in a row that he plans to play.
Like many players who are working to become competitive again, Weir appears to have reached the point where he's striking the ball well on the range and in practice rounds. He played a practice round at the Sony with his fellow Canadian Graham DeLaet. Weir made what DeLaet described as a "filthy" eagle to lighten his wallet on the last hole.
It would be absurd, to say the least, to suggest that Weir by that "filthy" eagle and ability to come up with the goods when it mattered in a practice round is ready to take his game to the tournament itself. In fact, if Weir is indeed playing some better golf in practice, that only makes an observation that Johnny Miller once made that much more intriguing.
Miller said that the longest walk in golf is the 50 yards from the practice tee. He's said that frequently, as I recall, perhaps because he himself had trouble later in his career making the transition. His problems weren't in taking his swing from the range to the first tee, but from the practice green to the greens during a tournament. He got yippy on the greens. You could see the twitch. You could sense the anxiety he felt on the greens.
The level of anxiety a player feels is relative to where he is in what Tiger Woods, while changing his swing three times during his career, has always referred to as "the process." Woods didn't win on the PGA Tour from Sept. 2009, when he took the BMW Championship, until March 2012, when he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He said during that winless period, and has repeated since, that he's "in the process" of revamping his swing. This is his mantra. It's the same for every player trying to make changes and/or emerge from a fallow period.
When Woods did win the Arnold Palmer Invitational last March, he did so by hitting solid and controlled shots in the windy final round at the Bay Hill course in Orlando. Moments after he won, he said his immediate reaction was "just pure joy." He added that "It was just a matter of just staying the course, and staying patient, keep working on fine-tuning what we're doing, and here we are."
Woods was describing the work he was doing with his swing coach Sean Foley. He won two more PGA Tour events last year, but didn't pick up his 15th major. He faltered on the weekend in majors. The process continues. We'll see come the Masters in April whether Woods has made further progress in the process.
Meanwhile Weir, now 10 years removed from his Masters win, is in his own process as he tries to take his game from the range to the course in tournaments. He might take solace in the fact that Mark O'Meara once felt as if he couldn't hit the green on the 141-yard 15th hole at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont. when he played the Canadian Open. This was in the early to mid-1990s. O'Meara found his game and won the 1995 Canadian Open at Glen Abbey. He went on to win the 1998 Masters and Open Championship.
Weir, for his part, is about to undergo the first in a series of tests. His rise to the top of the game–he got as high as third in the world rankings–and his fall in the last few years, is fascinating. Where does the game go? Can it come back? The official world golf rankings go to number 1,500. Weir isn't ranked. Thirty-four Canadians are, but Weir isn't in that group. I find that ridiculous, no matter how poorly he's played. Are there really 34 better Canadian golfers?
It's time for the true test, in tournaments on the PGA Tour. We'll soon see whether Weir, in his search for improvement that has taken him to a variety of swing coaches, has suffered what five-time Open Championship winner Peter Thomson once described as "corruption of the hard drive." He offered that comment to me when I asked him what he thought had happened to six-time major champion Nick Faldo's game. Faldo had been working on his once super-solid swing that had disappeared, but without much success.
Has Weir experienced corruption of the hard drive? Has Woods, at least when it comes to putting it together on the weekend to win majors–which he once did with relentless and clinical efficiency?
The PGA Tour season is upon us, with its weekly laboratories, experiments, and tests. We are about to learn who can handle that long walk from the range to the first tee, and beyond.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein