Mike Weir still chasing the dream at Augusta

by Dave Feschuk (Toronto Star)

AUGUSTA, GA.—It looked like an idyllic picture of an athletic retirement. The past couple of times Mike Weir has ventured to Augusta National in preparation for this week’s 81st Masters, he has crossed paths with Peyton Manning, the football great.

A little more than a year removed from winning a career-capping Super Bowl, Manning, at age 41, now counts himself as one of the exclusive club’s new members. The privileged life, at least a glimpse of it from the outside, seems to be agreeing with the old quarterback.

“I’ve seen him there with some buddies playing golf and having breakfast, and you can just see the excitement on everybody’s face. It’s pretty neat to see that,” Weir was saying the other day. “Everybody’s like a kid in a candy store.”

Springtime in Augusta has been known to have that effect on people. But if Manning apparently wears the look of a man content in his post-professional existence, Weir can’t exactly relate. Though Weir long ago cemented his legacy as Canada’s greatest golfer — his 2003 Masters victory will forever loom as one of the country’s greatest sporting moments — he isn’t yet ready to view his days as a sportsman in the past tense. Which is not to say relative eons haven’t passed since he was competitively relevant. It’s been 14 years since Tiger Woods slipped the green jacket onto Weir’s shoulders and a decade since Weir last won a tournament on the PGA Tour.

And somewhere in the ensuing blur of missed cuts and injury-induced absences and the personal tumult around a 2014 divorce that he admits diverted his attention from his craft, certainly one could get the idea that Weir, who will turn 47 next month, was gracefully coming to see his annual appearances here as more ceremonial than serious. Last year Weir even pre-committed to providing weekend TV analysis of the Masters for TSN — all but acknowledging his snowball’s chance in Georgia of making the cut. Performing to those expectations, he was excluded from Saturday and Sunday rounds for the fifth time in six years.

“Last year I wasn’t in a place, with everything going on in my life, to feel like I’d put in the time to be 100% competitive,” Weir said.

But this year, he says, is a different matter.

“This year I’ve put a lot of time in. I’ve been to Augusta a number of times. And I’m focussed on my game again. And that’s really where my mind is right now,” he said.

To that end, Weir turned down TSN’s offer of weekend broadcasting this year with an eye toward a better performance. If he’s spent time staring into the face of an existence mostly free of tournament golf — and heading into this week he had played in just one PGA Tour event this season — he hasn’t liked the look of it.

“I just love the game. I don’t feel like you give up something you love to do,” he said. “Sure, you get frustrated with the game sometimes, and the score you’re shooting. But the love of the game never goes away, and the love to compete. The Champions Tour (for players 50 and over) is only a few years away. I’m still relatively healthy. I feel good. And I just love to compete.”

He’ll compete here, in a tournament he’s viewing as a springboard to coming events on the European Tour, while also handing down some of his hard-won wisdom to a couple of fellow Canadians. On Tuesday Weir is scheduled to play a practice round with first-timers Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont., and Adam Hadwin of Abbotsford, B.C., both 20-somethings who’ve won on the PGA Tour in recent months. If it’s something of an historic moment in the national golf pantheon — the Maple Leaf hasn’t been represented by as many as three players at Augusta since 1968, when George Knudson, Al Balding and Gary Cowan were in the field — both Hughes and Hadwin have spoken of Tuesday’s round with Weir as an important moment in their development.

“Mike is incredible. He’s hugely motivated still, which at that age is incredible,” Hughes said in an interview. “He just doesn’t have any give-up in his body, which is quite amazing to me. It’s definitely inspiring and cool to watch a guy of that stature never give up. He doesn’t need the money. But he’s got goals and aspirations he still wants to achieve. It’s really cool to see him still going after it and chasing the dream.”

Chasing is an operative word, and one of Weir’s challenges is that he’s often left in the dust off the tee. Nobody’s bomber even in his prime, Weir has spoken of how a 2010 tendon injury in his right elbow has sapped some of the strength from his swing. In a sport in which world No. 1 Dustin Johnson couples mammoth drives with pinpoint wedging, being a short hitter is more daunting than ever. But Weir insists there remains a niche to be carved out.

“There’s courses where the long guys have big advantages. But there’s courses out there where they don’t. You saw Zach Johnson win at the British Open a couple of years ago, at St. Andrews, with deft touch with the short game, and a very strategic game. That’s still in play out there,” Weir said. “It can be done. It’s just a little bit harder.”

And so Weir finds himself in a place that’s both foreign and familiar. It’s foreign to the Weir who peaked at No. 3 in the world and won $27 million (U.S.) in PGA Tour prize money. But it’s familiar to the Weir who slogged through year upon year on the Canadian tour in the 1990s, all the while never imagining the enormity of the success that lay ahead. All these years later, a man not yet ready for post-retirement rounds with his buddies is hoping that some of his personal history can repeat itself, that an unlikely underdog might once again defy all reasonable expectations.

“My whole life I’ve been told I couldn’t do things. I was told I was too small when I was a junior golfer. I didn’t hit it far enough. I didn’t do this well enough. Then I was stuck on the Canadian Tour — ‘You’ll never make it.’ That’s been the story of my career, really,” Weir said. “The enduring thing through all that is my belief in myself. That just doesn’t go away. I still believe in myself. I believe I can make it back to the PGA Tour and do well on the PGA Tour.”