By Joe Juliano
As the hometown of Walter Hagen, Robert Trent Jones and Jeff Sluman hosts the 85th PGA Championship at pristine Oak Hill Country Club, an argument can be made that there is no community more passionate about golf than ours. After all, anyone can play 18 when it's 80 and sunny. Try doing it when you're forced to don snow boots and a cap with earflaps to protect yourself from the elements. "How you could be so mad about a game when you can't play it for a third of the year is quite extraordinary," long-time European golf writer Jock Howard marveled after visiting Rochester several years ago. "It reminded me a bit of Scotland in that way because it is so golf crazy."
The azaleas and dogwood were in full bloom, as they always are in early April. Other than that, though, normalcy at the 2003 Masters was in short supply. Disputes over the membership policy at Augusta National Golf Club, television coverage devoid of commercials, and rain that wiped out a practice day and forced the postponement of the opening round made it, to paraphrase the old saying, a year unlike any other.
So it was only fitting that down the stretch of the 67th Masters Tournament, someone who plays golf left-handed but writes right-handed, and another man who played golf right-handed but writes left-handed, were battling for the championship, while, atypically, Tiger Woods was nowhere to be found on any leader board on the back nine on Sunday. In the end, in a tournament that was extended to a one-hole playoff, Mike Weir struck a victory for Canada and for left-handed golfers around the world with precise shotmaking and steely nerve on the glass-like greens of Augusta National. He overcame delays and the soaked terrain and the challenges from likely and unlikely contenders to win his first major and have the green jacket (size 42 regular, please) slipped over his shoulders.
To become the first Canadian to win a major, and only the second left-hander to win a major, joining 1963 British Open Champion Bob Charles, Weir carded a bogeyless 68 to hold off a determined charge from Len Mattiace. Mattiace, competing in his first Masters since his days as a 20-year-old former Walker Cup player in 1988, fired the round of his life on Sunday, a 7-under-par 65 that would eventually unleash a torrent of emotions that evening in front of television cameras. The playoff was less than memorable. Weir only needed a 3-putt bogey after Mattiace pulled his approach shot into the trees at the 10th hole. But in no way could the pedestrian play on the final hole of the tournament take away from the events that preceded them.
"It was an incredible day," said the 32-year-old Weir, a soft-spoken 1993 Brigham Young University graduate who lives in Draper, Utah. "To go bogey-free at Augusta National on Sunday, I can't ask for anything more. It was just a gut-wrenching day, but a great day."
Despite being No. 10 in the World Golf Rankings, Weir was not on the A-list of favorites coming in. With Augusta National stretched out to 7,290 yards thanks to a tweaking of the fifth hole, the prognosticators figured that guys who can pound the ball tremendous distances had the only chance to win. Of course, at the top of that list stood Woods, trying to become the first player to win the Masters three consecutive times. Ernie Els and Davis Love III had joined Weir and Woods as multiple champions on the 2003 PGA Tour. And Phil Mickelson, the lefthander in waiting, had returned following the birth of his third child ready to snap his 0-for-42 drought in the majors.
Weir, however, had more than sufficient credentials. Third on the PGA Tour money list, he had won two tournaments earlier in the season - the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and the Nissan Open. He was an accurate iron player with a wonderful short game. The only question that remained was how Weir would handle longer approach shots into Augusta National's diabolical greens. For the week, he averaged just 271 yards off the tee (only 10 of the 49 players who made the cut averaged fewer yards) and hit only 38 of 72 greens in regulation (52.7 percent).
The answer came on the green. Weir needed only 104 putts for the week, 26 on Sunday. He was particularly cool and calm when the leader board was changing by the minute, when the subtle breaks on every green turned the minds of many to mush. He drained a series of knee-knocking par putts on Sunday, the best being a 7-footer on the 18th - "as nerve-wracking at it gets," he said - that forced the playoff.
The week began with plenty of distractions, but the golf won out in the end. The attention entering the Masters focused squarely on the feud between Augusta National chairman William "Hootie" Johnson and Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, over the club's all-male membership. Johnson fired his shots at his annual pre-Masters news conference, ending it by saying, "If I drop dead right now, our position will not change on this issue." Burk had her chance to respond during a protest on Masters Saturday, but it drew less than 100 supporters.
At first, it was thought that only a run at history by Woods could overcome all the non-golf talk. And matters didn't get any better with the rain that forced the cancellation of Monday's practice round and postponement of the opening round until Friday, forcing the first three rounds to be played in two days. But the entire weekend, ending with the duel between Weir and Mattiace, who needed 219 tournaments on the PGA Tour to win for the first time in 2002, turned into riveting drama, an exercise in endurance and fortitude.
This wasn't Weir's first time on the main stage at a major. A persevering man who reached the PGA Tour five years after college, lost his card, and got it back the next year, Weir experienced his breakthrough moment at the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club outside of Chicago. He rallied in the third round to tie for the lead and get into the last pairing with Woods. But on Sunday, he three-putted three of his first eight holes and became a bit player in the final-round duel between Woods and Sergio Garcia.
Weir said he learned from the experience of 1999, that he took "a lot of positives" out of the day even though he shot an 80 and dropped into a tie for 10th. "A lot of hard work has gone in since that PGA Championship," he said. "That's kind of set me up for this week. I worked a lot on my swing to tighten that up and make it more consistent. I worked on my putting very hard. That was the difference today. I made literally all my putts inside of eight feet. At the PGA that year, I don't think I made one of them. Obviously, it was a very difficult day for me then."
Woods put his fans through a roller-coaster of emotions the entire Masters. He completed his first round without a single birdie, and his 76 was his highest as a pro at Augusta National. He left the course Friday evening standing at 2-over par through 28 holes. When he returned, he struggled with two bogeys and a double bogey and reached his final hole, No. 9, needing a par to make the cut. He did it the hard way - drive into the trees, punch-out into the left greenside bunker, blast to 3 feet, one putt - to conclude one of the more exciting Saturday mornings in Masters history.
Teeing off in the afternoon, albeit on the 10th hole instead of No. 1, Woods rapidly moved up, carding a bogey-free 66 to complete three rounds trailing 54-hole leader Jeff Maggert by four strokes and Weir by two. The air was thick with anticipation. One more remarkable Sunday charge, and he would make history once again. However, Woods shot himself out of it Sunday on the third hole, a short but devious par-4. Taking driver off the tee, Woods pushed his ball into the trees, punched out, flubbed a pitch over the green and made double-bogey 6. The charge was over before it could even begin, and his 75 left him in a tie for 15th.
"It's disappointing, but that's sports," Woods said. "That's why we play. We try to put ourselves in a position to win, but you're not going to win every time.
Maggert, who has played well in majors but had dropped to 117th in the world, also met with bad luck at No. 3. His shot out of a fairway bunker struck him in the chest for a two-stroke penalty en route to a triple bogey. He also carded quintuple-bogey 8 on the 12th hole to fall out of contention.
It came down to Weir and Mattiace. Playing three holes ahead of Weir, Mattiace got the eventual champion's attention with an eagle at the 13th. Weir made birdie there. Mattiace took a 2-stroke lead with a birdie at the 15th, but Weir later matched that. However, needing a par at 18 for a 64, which would tie him for the lowest round on a Masters Sunday, Mattiace pushed his tee shot into the trees and struggled to a bogey. Weir reached the 18th in two, sank his gut-grinding 7-footer for par, and ended matters amid the long shadows on No. 10.
The championship of the Masters was quite a huge step in the career of Weir, who grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Huron, where the golf season isn't a very long one. Growing up, he would hit old golf balls in the winter into the lake or into a net that his father put in the garage. But mostly, he wanted to spend the fall, winter and spring playing hockey like his idol, Wayne Gretzky.
As he grew older, golf became more attractive to Weir. The thought of getting pounded in the corners on skates didn't appeal to him after he stopped growing at 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds. When Brigham Young came calling to invite him to play college golf in the states, he put all his energy into what had previously been a summer sport. That led him to professional golf, to his days on the Canadian Tour and playing overseas, wondering if life as a struggling pro would ever get better. But through hard work and persistence, he got to the major leagues and gained some notice - winning more than $5 million in 2000 and 2001, including a victory at the 2001 Tour Championship. After an off-year in 2002, he rededicated himself, leading to his momentous achievement on the second Sunday in April, and capping a week that even he admitted was "a little bit odd."
"Yeah, obviously, with a bunch of things going on outside the gates, and with the weather and everything, it's been a bit of a hectic week," he said. "But I didn't pay much attention to that. I was here to play a golf tournament. This is a great win for me."
|THE MASTERS SCOREBOARD|
|José Maria Olazábal||73-71-71-73-288|
|T15||Davis Love III||77-71-71-71-290||2-over|
|21||Ricky Barnes (am)||69-74-75-73-291||3-over|
|Charles Howell III||73-72-76-73-294|
|Hunter Mahan (am)||73-72-73-76-294|