Winning with what he has left

Posted: Monday, April 14, 2003

He was a kid, and the greatest golfer of all time wrote back and told him not to change a thing. It might be the best advice Mike Weir ever got.

He thought he had one strike against him because he was a Canadian and no Canadian had ever won a major. But Weir was a left-hander on top of that. So he got a job at the golf course across the street from his house. And then he wrote a letter to Jack Nicklaus and asked whether he should try to hit the ball right-handed. The reply was no.

Between that day and this one, Weir had to put in time kicking around bush-league tours back home and as far away as Australia. After a miserable 1997 season on the PGA Tour, he had to go to the much-dreaded qualifying school and win back his playing privileges.

But Weir never had a single regret.

Unbelievable,'' he said Sunday, moments after his tap-in putt at the first playoff hole won him the Masters and sent a green jacket to the Great White North for the first time.

I'm having a hard time putting this into words,'' Weir said, because words won't do it justice.''

Like just about every kid who grows up in Canada, Weir played hockey from the time he was little until his teens. He rated himself average'' until he turned 14, when nearly all of his friends shot past him in height.

He used to joke, I was never a threat to the NHL,'' but by then, Weir had been working at the golf course for a half-dozen years and was beginning to show promise.

The names that preceded his in Canadian golf were Dave Barr, George Knudsen, Al Balding, Moe Norman but none had scaled the peak of a major championship until Sunday. Two strokes down to Len Mattiace with six holes to go, Weir knew the final few steps of the climb would be the toughest.

He turned prophecy into fact at the 18th when he blew his chance to win in regulation by leaving his birdie putt 6 feet short. At that point, just claiming a place in the playoff became a long shot.

That putt on 18, I wouldn't wish that putt on anybody. It's one of the most difficult things you can have in golf a putt to tie a major championship.

It was probably,'' he said, the biggest shot of my life.''

The win was the sixth of his career and third this year, all of them coming from behind. But Weir said the tough times and losses have proved just as valuable. The most painful was the 1999 PGA at Medinah Country Club, when he went off in the final pairing with Tiger Woods and shot 80.

Even that, however, didn't faze a guy who went through qualifying school five years in a row. He remembers hitting shots on the practice range until well after dark because he couldn't make a cut on the Australian Tour and didn't have enough money to go out and do something else.

His willingness to remember that kind of adversity, in part, is how Weir bounced back from his third round at Augusta after squandering a six-stroke lead.

The tough putts, the ones around 8 feet that you need to win, I missed almost every one I looked at at Medinah,'' Weir said. I don't think I missed one today.''

No lesson was ever wasted on Weir.

A few years ago, he got to play a practice round with Bob Charles, the first lefty to play in the Masters and the last to win a major the British Open in 1963. Weir was quick to acknowledge his debt.

Hopefully, Bob Charles was watching somewhere,'' he said. It's nice to get one for the lefties.''

Playing on the other side of the ball from most of his peers was one thing that gave Weir's victory an unusual feel. Being a Canadian was another. A week of rain and frigid temperatures was a third. Then there was Saturday's sparsely attended, at times bizarre, rally led by Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women's Organizations.

It's been a little bit odd, obviously. There was a bunch of things going on outside the gates, and with the weather and everything, it's been a little bit of a hectic week,'' Weir said. But I didn't pay much attention to that. I was here to play a golf tournament.

Once I was inside the ropes, I wanted to be very focused,'' he said, and I was able to do that.''

Weir said he didn't expect a rush of Canadians or left-handers into the game. But he did take some satisfaction knowing that a few of those in the pipeline will have a role model and one more reason to stick it out.

The fathers of the past changing their sons to right-handers isn't an issue anymore.

So I think,'' Weir said, smiling, you'll see a few more lefties out there.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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