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The agony of victory turns Weir's smiles into steely reserve

John GordonBy John Gordon,

Mike Weir was enjoying himself on that second Sunday of April, steering his Titleist Pro V1 around Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. A half-smile played on his face as he chatted with longtime caddie Brennan Little, as likely discussing his beloved Detroit Red Wings as what strategy the next shot demanded.

Weir had every right to smile. Although his ball striking left something to be desired, he was riding a hot putter to a playoff victory over Len Mattiace for the 2003 Masters title.

While it was his third PGA Tour victory in eight weeks, donning the green jacket made him one of golf's elite, the winner of one of the game's four major titles. It also made him the first Canadian male ever to win a major.

It also made the 5-foot-9 lefthander from Bright's Grove, Ont., larger than life, an icon for adoring fans but a target for fickle media.

Ten months earlier at the Telus Skins Game in Huntsville, Ont., that smile was either forced or altogether absent. Despite the fact that the Skins Game was a tired, made-for-TV confection featuring the semi-disinterested Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia and John Daly, Weir was grinding, trying to make something, anything, happen.

He had played 15 PGA Tour events to that point with no top-10 finishes and had missed two cuts, most recently at the U.S. Open. After being embarrassingly shut out at the Skins Game, he would continue his skid through the rest of the season, never finishing higher than joint 15th.

The calendar flipped and 2002 was the year of living ignominiously for Weir, a year during which he stumbled badly on his ascent to what he considered his rightful place at the top of golf's pecking order. Until then, he had been on track. In 1999, he won the Air Canada Championship in Surrey, B.C., finishing 23rd on the money list.

The following year, he won the World Golf Championships-American Express Championship over an elite field in Spain, winding up sixth in earnings with $2.5-million. In 2001, he endured a playoff at the season-ending Tour Championship, ending up 11th in earnings with $2.7-million.

In 2002, about the only things he won were sympathy from his fans and criticism from the media.

This season was a different story altogether. He finished tied for ninth at his first tournament of the year, the Phoenix Open in January. The next week he won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, and three weeks later, the Nissan Open. Then The Masters. Three wins in eight weeks, eh?

Weir himself gives most of the credit for the turnaround to the many winter hours spent in a specially designed mirrored room in the basement of his house in Draper, Utah. (Apparently, there are no mirrors on the ceiling, this being Utah and all.) In it, he can study his swing motion, work on neutralizing his grip, practise putting, hone his moves. He continues to work tirelessly with Mike Wilson of Palm Springs, Calif., his swing coach since 1996.

"I remember clearly one moment that seemed to crystallize things for me," Weir has said. "It was on the practice range at the 1994 Canadian Open, and I was hitting balls next to Nick Price. I was watching how the ball just exploded off his clubface and it occurred to me that there was no way I could ever think of beating this guy if I didn't change some things. So I did."

And he continues to do so, perhaps at his peril.

People close to him realize that he has been walking a tightrope, one from which he may have fallen briefly in 2002. Longtime Canadian golf journalist Lorne Rubenstein is one of them. He's seen it before with world-class players, including Price with whom he wrote an instruction book.

"The approach that got him to where he was prior to 2002 in a way hurt him last year, the way it's hurt Nick Price in the past or Nick Faldo," says Rubenstein, who has just published a book titled Mike Weir: The Road to The Masters. "He's so inclined to working on his technique that he may have gone a little far. There are only a few who can do that, go a long way while continuing to work on their swing. But you can cross the line like I think Mike did, or Price who turned himself into a world beater but sometimes would admit to experimenting too much, and Faldo who did it at a more advanced age so it hasn't been as easy for him to come back as readily. Some guys never do come back."

But come back Weir did after that long, relaxing winter break, raring to go thanks to some swing refinements and a reacquired enthusiasm. His early success was a blessing and a curse.

Immediately, everybody wanted a piece of him. The day after Tiger Woods helped him on with the fabled green jacket representing the Masters' champion, he travelled to Toronto to launch a line of Weir-branded golf accessories and dropped the puck at that night's Maple Leafs' game. He would have a park named after him in Sarnia, the city which annexed Bright's Grove, and a street was renamed in his honour in Draper. The governor of Utah declared May 12, his birthday, Mike Weir Day. He was in demand by the media, even gracing the cover of a major U.S. golf magazine. The demands were unrelenting for a man who has repeatedly maintained that golf comes second on his priority list after his family.

At the Chrysler Championship in early November, a reporter noted that Weir's demeanor more closely resembled that demonstrated at the 2002 Skins Game than that radiated on Masters Sunday.

His life was not his own anymore.

During tournaments and other public appearances, a Praetorian Guard of security, family and representatives of his agent, International Management Group, hovered close by. Media were regarded warily. "Please note: Mike Weir will not be granting any one-on-one interviews the week of the PGA Championship," one mass IMG e-mail advised. (The media bristled at its haughty tone and ignored its message.) Despite repeated phone calls and e-mails to IMG, Weir was not made available by IMG flacks for an interview for this story.

Weir's game, his life in golf, thrives on organization, where everything goes like clockwork. That simply wasn't possible after the Masters, and it confused and frustrated him. Walls were constructed around him by his handlers, but they couldn't totally protect him from the inevitable and justifiable responsibilities that fame brings.

That burden, combined with a pulled ligament in his back suffered at The International in August, prevented him from performing as well in the later part of the schedule as he had in the early going.

Now fans and media are wondering which edition of Mike Weir -- 2002 or 2003 - will show up this season. The decision by Weir and/or his IMG handlers to participate in these wallet-fattening boondoggles may be endlessly second-guessed should he falter in 2004.

Nevertheless, the heavy betting is that Weir, an individual driven to succeed if there ever was one, will not make another misstep on that tightrope.

At a tournament with a so-so, Weir was asked jokingly by a reporter: "So, Mike, I guess you come in here as the marquee player?"

Weir's response was steely: "Why are you laughing?"

Alas, the agony of victory often decides who laughs last.

What a difference a year makes!

                                                 2002                          2003
Events played                       25                                 21
Cuts missed                         3                                   1
Wins                                        0                                   3
Top 10 finishes                     0                                   10
Top 25 finishes                     11                                 16
Driving distance                    280.0 (100th)             289.2 (68th)
Driving accuracy                   66.2% (130th)            63.4% (132nd)
Greens in regulation           69.5% (14th)               65.9% (81st)
Putting average                    1.779 (121st)              1.733 (11th)
Putts per round                    29.45 (169th)              28.33 (9th)
Scoring average                   70.88 (64th)               68.97 (3rd)
Final-round                            71.43 (130th)             69.5 (12th)
scoring average
Official earnings (USD)       $843,890 (78th)         $4,918,910 (5th)
(Source: PGA Tour)

John Gordon has been involved fulltime with golf since he became managing editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, in 1985. In 1991, he was recruited by the Royal Canadian Golf Association to create their Member Services and Communications departments, and to revive Golf Canada magazine, their national membersmagazine which had been defunct for a decade. After successfully relaunching Golf Canada and serving as its inaugural editor, he was named executive director of the Ontario Golf Association. He returned to fulltime writing in 1995.

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