When all of Canada cheered

By Adam Stanley, PGATOUR.COM

Mike Weir was in a cart with his family headed toward Butler’s Cabin, where a green jacket awaited him. Suddenly, his brother Jim tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey, you forgot something.”

It was his ball.

In the hullabaloo that occurred after Weir won the 2003 Masters to become the first male major champion from Canada, he had forgotten the prized possession resting at the bottom of the cup on the par-4 10th, where he had just beaten Len Mattiace in a sudden-death playoff.

The oversight was understandable. Weir wasn’t expected to be the last man standing at Augusta National. He had to play 36 holes on Friday due to torrential rains, and a long course had been made longer. He’s a short hitter and wasn’t given much of a chance.
Even though he won twice on the PGA TOUR that season prior to the Masters, he wasn’t among the six players — three of them internationals — called into the interview room for a pre-tournament press conference that Tuesday.

But five days later, there was Weir, the green jacket now around his shoulders — and yes, the winning ball in hand after retrieving it from the 10th hole.

Weir, now 47, is celebrating the 15th anniversary of his Masters triumph this week. His victory — he defeated Mattiace on the first playoff hole after making an 8-foot par putt on the 72nd hole — was not just for him.

The whole of Canada, it seemed, was clinging on to his every shot, and what happened that week spurred those on the cusp of starting junior golf, those in college, and those who hadn’t even begun playing golf yet to want to be like Mike.
He inspired a generation.

He changed the way Canadians felt about the sport.

And he won one for the underdog.

The set-up

Weir had won twice already in 2003 and by the end of the year he would move to No. 3 in the Official World Golf Rankings. But Augusta National was playing long and wet, and all eyes were on Tiger Woods, the two-time defending champ who had already won three times in five starts that season. Weir wasn’t a betting favorite — although in his mind, he was.

MIKE WEIR: “The start of the season, how I played, I was playing better than anybody. I had won a couple times, I almost won another time (T9 at the Phoenix Open) and then I almost won another time after that (T3 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am) so I nearly had four wins before the Masters. I really felt on form with my game.”

LORNE RUBENSTEIN (Canadian journalist and author of “Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters”): “It was so soft, and people just assumed it was going to be the week for the longest hitters. But Mike’s wedge game was so wonderful at that time in his career, in a way (the weather) neutralized the longer hitters and the high-ball hitters because, while they still might carry the ball a long way, it wasn’t really going to roll as far as it would normally, and Mike with a low ball flight could still get it out there far enough and while he had to rely on his short game, it was actually quite helpful for him. It turned out to be an asset right from the beginning, and he scoffed at the notion that the golf course was going to be too long for him.”

WEIR: “My wedge game in general has always been excellent. It was good at Augusta but it wasn’t any better that week… that was just the way I was wedging it all year. That’s the way I had to play the course.”

RUBENSTEIN: “When I went down to Doral to talk to him a few weeks before, you could tell that Mike is not the kind of guy to draw attention to himself. so at first he was a little hesitant to talk about his belief and his self-belief that he could win a major in the time not too far away. But once he started talking about it, you could see that quiet self-confidence come across without it being an arrogant self-confidence.”

JIM WEIR: “Everyone was talking about how it was a bomber’s course (because) it was playing so long. Even though he had won twice going into that tournament, he was really under the radar.”

RICHARD ZOKOL (Canadian golfer, winner of the 1992 Greater Milwaukee Open): “Mike was making an ascent that year, and even the years prior he was going up to the next level. He had won a (World Golf Championship), he had won twice at Riviera. He was passing the tests for a Canadian who was in uncharted waters. Mike was showing a pattern of performances that showed he belonged. It showed he was at the next level.”

IAN LEGGATT (Canadian golfer, winner of the 2002 Touchstone Energy Tucson Open): “Mike had one of the best wedge games not just on the PGA TOUR but probably in the world. That’s how he was able to do it. At Augusta National, I think it’s always a surprise when someone like Mike or Zach (Johnson) could win, because it’s become such a power game and a power golf course, but I think everything lent itself that week to Mike being able to win.”

Where they were

The Canadians who are now on the PGA TOUR were all in different stages of their lives in 2003. Brad Fritsch was on the then-Canadian Tour (now PGA TOUR Canada). David Hearn and Graham DeLaet were finishing college or about to embark on their professional careers. Nick Taylor and Ben Silverman were teenagers; Mackenzie Hughes and Corey Conners were still in grade school. Canadian Golf Hall of Famer Richard Zokol, 17 years older than Weir, was 44 at the time and just two years removed from his last major start.

GRAHAM DeLAET: “I was in Pocatello, Idaho, because we were playing an Idaho State tournament (DeLaet was at Boise State at the time), and we finished up the second day. We came inside and it was just in time to see him make the putt on 18, and watched the playoff. It wasn’t really ideal timing from a Mike Weir fan standpoint (laughs).”

BRAD FRITSCH: “I was 25 and I was no good… yet (laughs). I was watching all day and I remember wondering, ‘Man, can he keep this up?’ because he was making all these 6-10 footers and I remember Len Mattiace was having a great day. Obviously being Canadian, I cheered for (Weir). As a professional, you don’t really cheer for too many guys – you cheer for your friends and that’s about it. Back then, not really knowing anyone out there, it was just really cool to have a Canadian doing that.”

MACKENZIE HUGHES (winner of the 2016 The RSM Classic): “I was just at home with my parents — they would have been watching too. I was on the couch, watching him do his thing. I don’t remember the details but I remember that putt (on 18). It was a huge deal.”

DAVID HEARN: “I remember that we were in Arkansas trying to Monday qualify for a (Web.com Tour) event… as soon as we finished the practice round, we tried to time it so that we could watch as much of the final round as we could in the hotel.”

NICK TAYLOR (winner of the 2014 Sanderson Farms Championship): “I was in Grade 9, I was still playing a bunch of sports but golf was becoming a favorite and one I wanted to play more. Obviously I was a Tiger (Woods) fan as well, but Mike, being from Canada… there weren’t many players out there that were recognizable. Mike Weir was the guy everybody knew about.”

ZOKOL: “I remember getting out of my chair and standing up and thinking, Mike is going to win this. This is going to happen. It’s not like, ‘I hope he wins this’ … it became a certainty. I just stood up, I was with my two kids, and all I could do was say that it was such a big moment in Canadian golf history and it was tremendous. It was just remarkable.”

COREY CONNERS (finished runner-up at the 2014 U.S. Amateur. Made his Masters debut in 2015 and played the first two rounds with Weir): “The thing that sticks in my mind is how he had that 6-footer on 18 for par (on Sunday). I ran out of the living room and was standing on our steps to go up to the second floor with my head down. I couldn’t watch! I heard my dad cheer or clap and I knew I could head back down and watch the rest.”

BEN SILVERMAN: “I hadn’t watched any golf at all. I wasn’t into watching it at that point at all (Silverman was a hockey player growing up just north of Toronto). For me, Mike Weir’s Masters win happened in like 2005 (laughs). At that point I would have been 17, I was much more into golf and I either was in Golf Town or somewhere and I purchased a VHS copy of his 2003 Masters and went home and watched. When he won the Masters in 2003, I didn’t know anything about it. I experienced his win a couple years later.”

RUBENSTEIN: “I was sitting in the top row on the 72nd hole and he’s got that 7-foot putt left and I’m furiously making notes, and he makes the putt and I’m still furiously making notes and nobody can move from that row. Rick Reilly (from Sports Illustrated) says, “Come on Rubenstein, move — we can’t get out of here until you do. Are you going to write the whole book now?”

Celebration

Weir flew to Toronto, Ontario, with some executives from Sears. He had been working on launching a clothing line that had been in the works for a couple of years, which was to take place on the Monday after the Masters. The Toronto Maple Leafs were also in the NHL playoffs, and the city was electric. Weir would be mobbed by fans at the Sears in downtown Toronto, and eventually went on to drop the puck at the Maple Leafs playoff game that night versus the Philadelphia Flyers.

To this day, people who were there say it was the loudest ovation they had ever heard.

JIM WEIR: “When it was time for Mike to go out on the ice at the Air Canada Centre, I was on the Maple Leafs bench and I remember Mike being announced and it really was extremely loud. Players on the bench told me they had never heard it that loud before. It was a very long ovation, and when I looked at my brother he loved it but it was starting to get a little uncomfortable.”

LEGGATT: “I’ve been to a few things before where […] they’re retiring numbers and what happened at that game was 10-fold as compared to being to one of those games where they retired the number. The crowd didn’t want to sit down … it just went on and on. It was pretty cool.”

MIKE WEIR: “It ended up being a really special thing… I was really feeling the Canadian fans and the people were excited about that win and it felt great to see all the players slapping their sticks on the ice.”

BRAD FRITSCH: “I may have dreamed about (winning a major) but the really cool thing was getting on the ice, wearing the green jacket and having everyone root for him. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s something that I would want to do for sure.'”
Inspiration and impact

Weir’s Masters win remains his lone major victory, but it was clear as the 2003 season continued he was not a golfer to be forgotten. He finished T3 at the U.S. Open, and T7 at the PGA Championship, then was an integral part of the International Team at the Presidents Cup in South Africa, winning three points in an event that was declared a tie. He had seven top-3 finishes that year and was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year (only the third golfer, and first male golfer) to win the award.
Since then, Weir has been named to the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2007 he was named to the Order of Canada — the second-highest honor a Canadian citizen can receive.

RUBENSTEIN: “I remember three weeks after the Masters, I had arranged to go down to the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte and I talked for 4-5 hours about the Masters and I remember going into his room and it was so big. He had all of his clubs lined up against the wall and I said to him, ‘I guess you can afford some bigger rooms now that you’ve won the Masters, eh?'”

BILL PAUL (former Tournament Director for the RBC Canadian Open, and current Chief Championship Officer for Golf Canada): “The sense was that he was as big as Tiger Woods would have been. I remember the crowds around Mike Weir at Hamilton (host course of the RBC Canadian Open in 2003), but regardless of where that Open would have been played, he just drew ‘Tiger’ crowds and that was just pretty cool. When he came here, it was neat to see all these Canadians take to a native son. We all saw that (Masters) victory as being ours.”

DeLAET: “If it weren’t for Tiger, I wouldn’t be playing, but Mike too. Those two were basically my heroes growing up and to watch him put the green jacket on was pretty cool.”

TAYLOR: “It was definitely something where we see someone from our country who does something incredible, it makes you say, ‘Why not me?'”

SILVERMAN: “I didn’t even understand the significance of winning the Masters at that time. I didn’t gain an appreciation of it until later on, and I got into golf more. After watching that (video), I knew this is the best golfer in Canada and I started keeping an eye on him from that point on. As I worked on developing my game, he was the person I looked for to see how he was doing.”

HEARN: “Like a lot of Canadian fans, we know our athletes can do it, and they can do great things. But at the same time you’re just really hopeful that they do. That tournament (the Masters) means so much to Canadians, because it takes place around the beginning of our golf season. Mike had achieved so much already, and to cap it off with that win at Augusta, that win at the Masters, it was pretty special. … We saw a lot of ourselves in the way Mike came up through the ranks. It was very inspiring.”

ZOKOL: “I wish I had someone that made me believe I could win a major. I never aspired to win a major. It impacts what is possible and blows the ceiling off what is possible. … It affected all of Canada. Every Canadian in golf, certainly, it changed them. It had a profound impact on every person who plays the sport in the country. They thought, ‘We can do this.'”

ADAM HADWIN (winner of the 2017 Valspar Championship): “It showed the country and world we could compete on golf’s biggest stages … The country to the north with the long winters and short golf season can produce major champions. It also instilled a sense of belief in all of us that if Mike can do it, we can too.”

LEGGATT: “I was pretty ecstatic for Mike and ultimately the game of golf in Canada as well. Golf in Canada had a huge positive pivot in the right direction. It’s tough to measure things like that but it would have to be one of the most significant things that has ever happened in Canadian golf.”

MIKE WEIR: “When I talk to Canadians and fans, it’s a really special thing. Not many players on TOUR have that experience. Angel Cabrera, when he goes to Argentina, he’s a major champion. The United States has plenty of them, but Canada doesn’t, and a lot of other countries around the world have none. So to have the support of the fans and really feel that over the year has been incredible. It’s a unique experience and still, 15 years later, it’s still fresh in a lot of people’s minds and I’m proud of it. Big time.”